Three Tips For Writing 1980s-Style Horror Fiction

My first encounter with the wonderful world of 1980s horror fiction was during the early 2000s when, as a young teenager, I happened to find a copy of Shaun Hutson’s 1988 novel “Assassin” in the horror section of an indoor market book stall in Stafford.

When I read it, I was amazed that literature could be that gruesome, shocking and controversial. It showed me that books could be rebellious. Needless to say, I read lots of old 1980s horror novels (in addition to a few 1970s and 1990s ones) when I was a teenager. They were also the thing that first really made me interested in writing fiction.

And, when I briefly got back into writing short stories last year, I had a lot of fun writing stuff that involved this type of fiction. For example, this story includes an “extract” from a fictional 1980s horror novel.

As such, I thought that I’d offer a few tips for writing 1980s-style horror fiction. I’ll mostly be focusing on British-style horror fiction (eg: Shaun Hutson, James Herbert, Clive Barker, Graham Masterton, Guy N. Smith etc..) here, since I’ve had much more experience with reading this type of 1980s horror fiction.

1) Splatterpunk: It is impossible to talk about 1980s horror fiction without talking about splatterpunk.

In short, this is a cool-sounding term for horror fiction that is more gruesome than even the most extreme modern horror movies. Although 1980s Britain was notorious for strict film censorship (eg: the “video nasties” moral panic) – thanks to the Lady Chatterley trial, horror literature had none of these silly over-protective restrictions during the 1980s.

But, splatterpunk fiction is more than just page upon page of gory descriptions – it has a very distinctive style, atmosphere and set of narrative techniques that are worth learning.

One of these techniques is how the genre handles side-characters. In short, splatterpunk novels will often include a few chapters that introduce new background characters… only for each of them to die horribly at the end of their chapter.

Not only does this allow for more shockingly macabre moments, it also gives the story a greater degree of scope – since we get to see what is happening outside of the lives of the main characters. In addition to this, when these types of chapters are placed near the beginning of the book, it adds some suspenseful uncertainty about who will (and won’t) be a main character. It also creates an ominously chilling atmosphere where life is cheap and death can lurk anywhere.

In addition to this, 1980s splatterpunk novels are often written in a more descriptive, formal and slow-paced way than you might expect. For example, even though Shaun Hutson was considered a “low brow” horror author during the 1980s, his 1980s novels are often written in a way that would almost be considered “literary” these days. So, don’t try to write a 1980s-style splatterpunk story in the fast-paced style of a modern thriller novel. The descriptive, slightly formal style is there for a reason. It helps to add atmosphere, vividness and suspense to the story.

Since it includes the word “punk”, splatterpunk fiction also displays a gleeful contempt for authority too. Most of the time, this takes the form of shadowy government conspiracies (eg: the military sealing off a town is a favourite trope) but it is also shown through things like the police being useless at preventing horrific events and/or hindering the main characters in some way etc…

Finally, another defining feature of 1980s splatterpunk fiction is the choice of mundane – often rural- settings. Most classic British splatterpunk novels will be set in ordinary small towns and feature ordinary people. This is mostly because one of the defining types of horror in 1980s splatterpunk fiction is contrasting the ordinary with the grotesque.

2) Creatures and monsters: It is impossible to talk about 1980s-style horror fiction without talking about creatures and monsters. This trend started in 1974 when James Herbert’s “The Rats” was published, but it only reached peak popularity during the late 1970s and the 1980s.

This was when novels like Shaun Hutson’s “Slugs” novels, Michael R. Linaker’s “Scorpion“, Guy N. Smith’s so-bad-that-they’re-good “Crabs” novels and Richard Lewis’ “Devil’s Coach-Horse” (which is on my “to read” list) were published.

I’ve written a more detailed article about this genre. But, in short, these types of stories typically involve some kind of animal, crustacean or insect that becomes mutated and attacks the population a small town.

Usually, the government’s response is to cover up the incident and/or obliterate the town. This genre also overlaps quite heavily with the splatterpunk genre, with the mutated creatures often devouring or killing many characters in a variety of inventively grotesque ways.

From all of the background reading I’ve done online, some theories as to the popularity of this type of horror fiction include things like it being an expression of Cold War anxieties about nuclear war (James Herbert’s “Domain” is a genuinely chilling exploration of this theme) or possibly a hangover from the “invasion literature” genre that was popular here in Britain during the early 20th century.

But, regardless, if you want to write a “1980s Britain” horror story, then including mutated creatures is one way to do it.

3) Don’t be too “retro”: One of the surprising things about 1980s horror fiction is just how… ordinary… it is. Yes, it often doesn’t age well. But, for the most part, there’s very little of the modern, stylised “nostalgic” version of the 1980s that you might expect when you think about this genre.

In short, 1980s horror fiction is just like ordinary literature – but without smartphones, the internet or stuff like that. So, if you’re writing “1980s” horror fiction, then don’t go overboard with the retro nostalgia.

For example, if your character is watching a VHS tape on a CRT television – then just write something like “she turned on the TV and played the video” rather than including a long description of the old TV and the VCR.

Remember that these novels were originally meant to be current novels about horrible things happening to ordinary people in ordinary places. As such, they don’t focus obsessively on anything that is distinctively “80s”. They just tell stories about ordinary people in ordinary places in an ordinary way. They weren’t written for nostalgia.

———-

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Reasons Why The Monster Genre Is Brilliant

Well, during one of my 1990s film reviews a few days ago, I was reminded of how much fun the monster genre is. Seriously, as horror sub-genres go, it’s certainly one of my favourites.

So, I thought that I’d list a few of the many reasons why the monster genre is such a fun, interesting and distinctive part of the horror genre.

1) Non-scary horror: Simply put, monsters aren’t scary. Like zombies and vampires, they don’t actually exist in real life.

What this means is that when you watch a monster movie or read a monster-themed horror novel, then you get to see all of the techniques, features and tropes of the horror genre (eg: suspense, gore, melodrama etc..) but without any of the lingering fear that accompanies more “realistic” or more psychological horror stories.

I’ve written about non-scary horror before, but some of the reasons why this is such a fun type of horror include the fact that it makes the audience feel like they’re really “tough” (since they’re experiencing something in the horror genre, but aren’t terrified by it) and the fact that it can often turn into an absolutely brilliant type of horror-themed comedy. After all, if you’re seeing all of the tropes and features of the horror genre in a context that isn’t scary, then they can come across as hilariously melodramatic.

In addition to this, the monster genre is also a “safe” way to experience something in the horror genre. One of the problems with more “serious” horror is that it can often leave you feeling nervous and/or miserable for hours or days afterwards. The monster genre has none of that. Even if a monster story ends with the monster eating the main characters or wiping out civilisation, then it’s still funny rather than scary because of the unrealistic silliness of it all. So, it’s a way to enjoy the horror genre without any negative emotional side-effects.

2) Disaster without the disaster: Another cool thing about the monster genre is that it allows the audience to experience all of the thrilling elements of the disaster genre, without any of the real-world “it could happen” seriousness that accompanies things in this genre.

Although some things in the monster genre are supposed to be metaphors for real-world threats (eg: Godzilla was originally meant to be a metaphor for the atom bomb), this subtext often doesn’t appear in the monster genre.

Even so, the monster genre has a lot in common with the disaster genre. Whether it is an intrepid band of survivors trying to survive against all odds, or a group of experts trying to contain a disease-like group of creatures or the military/emergency services doing their job in a spectacular way, the monster and disaster genres are very similar. But, since the monster genre involves hilariously unrealistic giant creatures, all of these elements become joyously thrilling rather than dramatically serious.

In addition to this, monster stories often end with the monster being defeated or scared away. Given that the news is often filled with terrible events that we have no control over, seeing a story where some kind of calamity or catastrophe is defeated through ingenuity, courage and/or strength can be fairly satisfying on an emotional level.

3) No pretentiousness: Yet another awesome thing about the monster genre is that it knows that it is meant to be silly fun. It isn’t trying to win awards or impress pretentious critics, it exists purely to entertain. And it is so much better as a result!

Because it isn’t looking for formal mainstream recognition, the monster genre has a lot more room to be inventive, silly and fun. It’s like American horror comics during the 1940s-50s or computer games during the 1990s. This generally results in a much more light-hearted tone, an emphasis on fun and a lot more creativity.

The low filming budgets and/or lack of bestseller status mean that works in the monster genre have to find more creative ways to intrigue or entertain the audience. It also means that they can be a bit more fun or light-hearted, since their target audience consists of fans of the genre.

This lack of pretentiousness also extends to a lack of obsession about celebrity too, which is very refreshing when compared to mainstream culture. Things in the monster genre will often be by lesser-known authors (with a dedicated fan-base) or they’ll include unknown actors and/or actors who are less famous than they used to be. And, in a world that is obsessed with fame, this can be extremely refreshing.

————

Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Monsters Don’t Make Monster Stories Scary… Everything Else Does

2015 Artwork Everything but the monster is scary article sketch

Although this is another article about writing monster-based horror fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about 1990s computer games for a while.

Trust me, there’s a good reason for this and I’m not just stealthily reviewing a really cool “Doom” WAD that I discovered recently. Honest.

Anyway, I recently realised something fairly important about monster-based horror stories when I was playing a fan-made episode for “Doom II” called ‘Temple Of The Lizard Men 3‘.

Although I might review “Temple Of The Lizard Men 3” properly sometime in the future, one of the startling things that I noticed was that it was actually scary. Yes, it was a genuinely scary game, where the monsters looked something like this:

Rawr!

Rawr!

So, if the monsters didn’t look very scary, then how did the game make them scary – and what can this teach us about storytelling?

The reason why the monsters in this game are so scary (despite looking cartoonishly unrealistic) is because of the situations you encounter them in.

Unlike in the original “Doom II” game, you are not an extremely well-armed space marine confidently fighting hordes of monsters in a variety of brightly-lit futuristic locations.

In “Temple Of The Lizard Men 3” you don’t always have quite enough ammunition to fight all of the monsters properly and you spend quite a lot of the earlier parts of the game tentatively walking through dark corridors where almost anything can pounce out at you from the shadows. This is, quite frankly, terrifying.

And, well, this made me think about monsters and horror fiction in general.

You see, monsters aren’t really that scary – because they don’t exist. You have precisely zero chance of ever running into a demon, a werewolf, a sea beast, a xenomorph or a zombie in real life.

It doesn’t matter how well you describe your monster or how grotesque it looks, it isn’t scary on it’s own.

Monsters in horror stories are nothing more than a plot device – they are nothing more than a source of danger for your characters. Your monster could easily be replaced by a ticking timebomb, an evil wizard or a deadly disease and it would still serve the same purpose.

But, just putting your characters in danger doesn’t necessarily make your story scary. After all, there are plenty of thriller, fantasy and science fiction stories that do precisely this without scaring their readers senseless. In fact, these kinds of stories make the danger thrilling or exciting rather than scary.

The only real difference between horror stories and other types of stories is how this danger to the characters is presented.

In non-horror stories, the characters are usually fairly evenly-matched against whatever threatens them. They have a lot of training, they’re well-armed and/or they have luck on their side.

In horror stories, the characters should not be evenly-matched against whatever monsters are threatening them. They probably won’t have the proper tools to fight the monsters effectively, they might not even know where the monsters are and they probably won’t even fully understand what the monsters are.

It’s like the difference between watching a fight between two muscular boxers and watching a fight between a rather feeble blindfolded guy and ten muscular boxers.

Watching one of these is thrilling, watching the other one will probably make you wince with anxious terror before the fight even begins.

In other words, a good monster story taps into your reader’s fear of vulnerability by making the characters seem vulnerable to the monster.

When your main character is walking through a dark corridor and hears an ominous howling sound in the distance, the creature that is making the howling noise isn’t what scares your readers. The thing that scares your readers is the fact that there might be something nearby that could attack your main character before he or she can even see it.

Being alone in the dark isn’t scary. Not being alone in the dark is scary.

Likewise, when your main character sees someone who has suffered a gruesome death at the hands of a monster, it isn’t the blood and guts (however well-described they may be) that scares your readers.

The thing that scares your readers is the fact that this fate could easily have happened to the main character instead, it’s the fact that no-one knows what could have done this to the other character and the fact that whatever did this could still be lurking nearby.

So, monsters aren’t scary on their own. But, everything that surrounds your monster is scary. So, focus on writing these things well and you might be able to trick your readers into thinking that your monster is also scary.

———

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂