Well, I thought that I’d talk about writing horror fiction again. This is mostly because, whilst the early 2000s detective thriller novel I’m reading at the moment (“The Apprentice” by Tess Gerritsen) contains a lot of horror elements, I noticed that it is both very similar and very different to a 1990s horror novel called “Exquisite Corpse” by Poppy Z. Brite.
But, I should probably include a mild SPOILER warning for both of these books before I go any further.
In short, the premise of both novels revolves around two serial killers teaming up with each other. However, although both novels feature many moments of horror, one thing that sets Gerritsen’s “The Apprentice” and Brite’s “Exquisite Corpse” apart from each other is the use of perspective.
Although Gerritsen’s detective novel features a few brief segments narrated by one of the killers, the main character is the detective who is trying to catch them. This lends the novel a much more fast-paced, suspenseful and mysterious atmosphere which, whilst it contains a decent amount of horror, is somewhat reassuring given the distance between the reader and the story’s “monsters”. After all, the reader spends most of the story in the company of a well-trained detective.
On the other hand, Brite’s horror novel makes the two killers the main characters. Yes, the novel uses a mixture of first and third person narration but, by using a slightly different focus, this story instantly becomes significantly creepier and more disturbing. In short, the reader is forced to see the events of a detective novel type story from an unexpected perspective and this makes the story much more of a horror novel. After all, the reader isn’t spending time in the reassuring company of a competent detective, but in the company of two vicious murderers.
An interesting middle ground between these two novels can also be found in Jeff Lindsay’s “Dexter” novels, which are detective novels where the detective is a serial killer who catches other serial killers. This allows for a really interesting blend of disturbing horror (thanks to the creepy protagonist) and more reassuring detective-based drama.
So, perspective can have a surprisingly large impact on the atmosphere, tone and general creepiness of a horror story. But, this isn’t a simple case of “horror stories are stories from the monster’s perspective”.
For example, some of the best vampire novels I’ve read (like Jocelynn Drake’s awesome “Dark Days” series and Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Armand” ) have vampire protagonists, yet they aren’t really that scary. Sure, these stories are thrilling, atmospheric, gothic, beauitful and/or generally awesome, but not really that frightening. After all, the narrators are powerful vampires who are on the reader’s “side”, so to speak.
So, it’s probably more of a matter of vulnerability and character than anything else. In short, horror fiction works best when the main character is vulnerable in some way (eg: the protagonist in Nick Cutter’s terrifying “The Deep” is a scientist trapped in an underwater research base). Likewise, in the scariest novels where the protagonist is some kind of “monster”, they will usually be pursued or persecuted by a more powerful group of people who think that they are the “good guys”.
In addition to this, horror novels can also use perspective to scare the reader by making the main character frightening. This can be because the main character is completely and irredeemably evil or because they are an unreliable narrator in some way or another. Because the story is told from their perspective, the reader is forced to empathise with them – which is a really disturbing experience. A good example of this is probably Whitley Strieber’s “The Hunger“, which is a rare example of a vampire novel that is actually scary.
So, yes, horror fiction is about perspective. But it is more about vulnerability and/or characters than just simply making the main character a vampire, zombie, monster etc…..
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂