Three Things To Do When You Can’t Make A Horror Story Too Gruesome

Well, I thought that I’d talk about writing horror fiction today. This is mostly because I originally wrote this article whilst I was busy preparing last year’s Halloween stories (and this article will contain SPOILERS for the first two of them). In particular, I’ll be looking at the topic of gruesomeness.

This is mostly because, although most of my early literary influences from the horror genre were the old second-hand 1980s-90s splatterpunk novels that I read when I was a teenager, I felt somewhat wary about making last year’s Halloween stories too gory.

In part, this was because my sensibilities had changed somewhat but it was also because I wasn’t sure whether I could get away with posting ludicrously gruesome 1980s-style horror fiction here.

So, what can you do if you want to write some horror fiction but – for whatever reason – can’t make it too gory? Here are a few tips:

1) Take influence from other aspects of gruesome horror: Horror stories that focus on gore, and gore alone, often aren’t that scary.

Gruesome horror stories, movies and games that have scared you enough to be a literary influence on you will often have some other element which is just as creepy – or more creepy – than the actual gore itself.

For example, one of the influences on the series of short stories (this one and this one in particular) that I wrote for last Halloween was my vague memories of a short story by Clive Barker called “The Forbidden” (from volume five of “The Books Of Blood”).

Although Barker’s story has some gruesome moments, the things that really make it memorable aren’t these parts. Instead, the creepily memorable parts of the story include things like the grimly bleak urban environments, the tension between curiosity and danger etc…

Likewise, another influence on last year’s Halloween stories was the fact that I’d re-played “Silent Hill 3” a few days before I wrote the stories.

Although the first story includes a couple of subtle “Silent Hill” references, the main inspirations that I took from the classic “Silent Hill” games weren’t to do with the series’ copious use of blood and guts. After all, the classic “Silent Hill” games are truly terrifying because of their focus on things like suspense, the visual theme of disease/decay, ominously dark environments, psychological instability, eerily malfunctioning technology etc….

To give another example, horror novels like “Audition” and “In The Miso Soup” by Ryu Murakami are shockingly horrific because they’re less gruesome than the average modern horror novel. Or, more accurtely, Murakami’s novels handle gruesome moments in a really clever way.

Many of Ryu Murakami’s horror stories only include one relatively brief grisly scene. However, these scenes are much more shocking than the average splatterpunk novel because Murakami spends almost the entire novel building up to them. So, devoting 80-90% of your story to building up suspense can be a way to make even relatively mild scenes of horror seem ten times more horrific.

So, if you can’t write a ludicrously gory horror story, then look at the ludicrously gory horror stories that have inspired you and see what else they do to scare or shock the reader.

2) Replace the gore with something else: One interesting thing that I noticed when writing the first two stories in last year’s Halloween collection was that there was something of an emphasis on bones, skulls, skeletons etc…

This was mostly because it was a way to imply that grisly events had happened, without including too much in the way of blood and guts. It also allowed me to emphasise things like the ferocity of various monsters and the passage of time too.

Plus, in the first story especially, I tried to write about the desolate and grim setting of the story in the same way that a splatterpunk writer might describe something grisly or gruesome.

For example, the story’s monster is described as having “a mouth like a slashed bin bag“. This is horrific because of the focus on decay (eg: a bag of rotting rubbish) and the implied violence (eg: slashing), but there isn’t a single drop of blood in this scene.

So, if you are worried about censorship, then you can replace the gore in your horror story with something equally grim or disturbing – but completely bloodless.

3) Implication:
This is the oldest trick in the book, but it works. If you leave the grisly events of your story to your readers’ imaginations, then your audience will probably make these scenes more horrific than you can.

For example, my second Halloween story ends when the main characters realise that they’ve entered somewhere that they probably won’t be leaving alive. The presence of a skeleton, the possible sound of a door locking and an ominous message scrawled in (what is implied to be) dried blood tell the reader that the characters are in mortal danger. But, the details of that mortal danger are at least partially left up to the readers’ imaginations.

In addition to all of this, another way to make sure that implied horrific events have an impact is through the location descriptions throughout your story. If you can fill your story with mildly creepy descriptions of everyday things (eg “dead radios”, “squealing” machinery etc..) , then this is going to put your readers in a frame of mind where they are going to imagine the worst when you don’t show something.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂