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.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂