25 Things You Should Know About Writing Horror

I grew up on horror fiction. Used to eat it up with a spoon. These days, not so much, but only I suspect because the horror releases just aren’t coming as fast and furious as they once did.

But really, the novels I have coming out so far are all, in their own way, horror novels. DOUBLE DEAD takes place in a zombie-fucked America with its protagonist being a genuinely monstrous vampire. BLACKBIRDS and MOCKINGBIRD feature a girl who can touch you and see how and when you’re going to die and then presents her with very few ways to do anything about it. Both are occasionally grisly and each puts to task a certain existential fear that horror does particularly well, asking who the hell are we, exactly?

And so it feels like a good time — with Halloween approaching, with DOUBLE DEAD in November and me writing MOCKINGBIRD at present — to visit the subject of writing horror.

None of this is meant to be hard and firm in terms of providing answers and advice. These are the things I think about writing horror. Good or bad. Right or wrong.

Peruse it. Add your own thoughts to the horror heap. And as always, enjoy.

1. At The Heart Of Every Tale, A Squirming Knot Of Worms

Every story is, in its tiny way, a horror story. Horror is about fear and tragedy, and whether or not one is capable of overcoming those things. It’s not all about severed heads or blood-glutton vampires. It’s an existential thing, a tragic thing, and somewhere in every story this dark heart beats. You feel horror when John McClane sees he’s got to cross over a floor of broken glass in his bare feet. We feel the fear of Harry and Sally, a fear that they’re going to ruin what they have by getting too close or by not getting too close, a fear that’s multiplied by knowing you’re growing older and have nobody to love you. In the Snooki book, we experience revulsion as we see Snooki bed countless bodybuilders and gym-sluts, her alien syphilis fast degrading their bodies until soon she can use their marrowless bones as straws with which to slurp up her latest Windex-colored drink. *insert Hannibal Lecter noise here*

2. Sing The Ululating Goat Song

Horror is best when it’s about tragedy in its truest and most theatrical form: tragedy is born through character flaws, through bad choices, through grave missteps. When the girl in the horror movie goes to investigate the creepy noise rather than turn and flee like a motherfucker, that’s a micro-moment of tragedy. We know that’s a bad goddamn decision and yet she does it. It is her downfall — possibly literally, as the slasher tosses her down an elevator shaft where she’s then impaled on a bunch of fixed spear-points or something. Sidenote: the original translation of tragedy is “goat song.” So, whenever you’re writing horror, just say, “I’M WRITING ANOTHER GOAT SONG, MOTHER.” And the person will be like, “I’m not your mother. It’s me, Steve.” And you just bleat and scream.

3. Horror’s Been In Our Heart For A Long Time

From Beowulf to Nathaniel Hawthorne, from Greek myth to Horace Walpole, horror’s been around for a long, long time. Everything’s all crushed bodies and extracted tongues and doom and devils and demi-gods. This is our literary legacy: the flower-bed of our fiction is seeded with these kernels of horror and watered with gallons of blood and a sprinkling of tears. Horror is part of our narrative make-up.

4. Look To Ghost Stories And Urban Legends

You want to see the simplest heart of horror, you could do worse than by dissecting ghost stories and urban legends: two types of tale we tell even as young deviants and miscreants. They contain many of the elements that make horror what it is: subversion, admonition, fear of the unknown.

5. We’re All Afraid Of The Dark

We fear the unknown because we fear the dark. We fear the dark because we’re biologically programmed to do so: at some point we gain the awareness that outside the light of our fire lurks — well, who fucking knows? Sabretooth tigers. Serial killers. The Octomom. Horror often operates best when it plays off this core notion that the unknown is a far freakier quantity than the known. The more we know the less frightening it becomes. Lovecraft is like a really advanced version of this. Our sanity is the firelight, and beyond it lurks not sabretooth tigers but a whole giant squirming seething pantheon of madness whose very existence is too much for mortal man’s mind to parse.

6. Plain Stakes, Stabbed Hard Through Breastbone

On the other hand, creating horror is easier and more effective when the stakes are so plain they’re on the table for all to see. We must know what can be gained — and, more importantly, what can be lost — for horror to work. Fear is built off of understanding consequences. We can be afraid of the unknown of the dark, but horror works best when we know that the dark is worth fearing.

7. Dread And Revulsion In An Endless Tango

Beneath plot and beneath story is a greasy, grimy subtextual layer of pacing — the tension and recoil of dread and revulsion. Dread is a kind of septic fear, a grim certainty that bad things are coming. Revulsion occurs when we see how these bad things unfold. We know that the monster is coming, and at some point we must see the wretchedness of the beast laid bare. Dread, revulsion, dread, revulsion.

8. Stab The Gut, Spear The Heart, Sever The Head

Horror works on three levels: mind, heart, gut. Our mind reels at trying to dissect horror, and good horror asks troubling questions. Our heart feels a surge of emotion: terror and fear and suspense, all felt deep in the ventricles, like a wedge of rancid fat clogging our aorta. Our gut feels all the leftover, baser emotions: the bowel-churn, the stomach-turn, the saline rush of icy sepsis as if our intestinal contents have turned to some kind of wretched fecal slushie. Which, for the record, is the name of my new Satanic Ska band.

9. The Squick Factor

Something my father used to do: he’d walk up, hands cupped and closed so as to hide something, and then he’d tell me to open my hands, the goal being that he would dump whatever he was hiding into my palm. Could be anything. Cicada skin. A frog or frog’s egg. The still-beating heart of a unicorn. The point was always the same: for me to find delight in being grossed out. Horror still plays on this. And why shouldn’t it? It’s both primal and fun. Sidenote: we should do a new gross-out reality show called The Squick Factor. Hollywood, call me. You know my number from the last time we made love under the overpass.

10. That Said, You Do Not Actually Require Buckets Of Overflowing Viscera

The Squick Factor is not actually a prerequisite for good horror. Some of the best and most insidious horror is devoid of any grossness at all: a great ghost story, for instance, is often without any blood-and-guts.

11. Characters You Love Making Choices You Hate

Suspense and tension are key components to the horror-making process. I’ve long thought that the best way to create these things is to have characters you love making choices you hate. When you see a beloved character about to step toward the closet where the unseen serial killer is hiding, your sphincter tightens so hard it could break someone’s finger. We recoil at mistakes made by loved ones, and this is doubly true when these mistakes put their lives, souls and sanities in danger.

12. Horror And Humor Are Gym Buddies

Horror and humor, hanging out at the gym, snapping each other’s asses with wet towels. Horror and humor both work to stimulate that same place in our gutty-works, a place that defies explanation. Sometimes you don’t know why you think this thing is funny or that thing is scary. They just are. It’s why it’s hard to explain a horror story or a joke: you can’t explain it, you can only tell it. And both are told similarly: both have a set up, ask a question, and respond with a punch line or a twist. It’s just, they go in separate directions — one aims for amusement, the other for anxiety. But the reason you can find these two working sometimes in tandem is because they’re ultimately kissing cousins.

13. Sex And Death Also Play Well Together

Two more kissing cousins: sex and death. Shakespeare didn’t call the orgasm the “little death” for nothing. (I, on the other hand, refer to it as “The Donkey’s Pinata.”) Both are taboo subjects, both kept to the dark — and, as we know, horror lives in the dark, too. We all fear death and so sex — procreative and seductive — feels like an antidote to that, but then you also have the baggage where OMG SEX KILLS, whether it’s via a venereal disease or as part of the unwritten rules contained within a slasher film. In this way, in horror, sex and death are the Ouroboros, the snake biting its own tail. Or maybe the double-dildo biting its own tail?

14. Car Crashes And Two Girls With One Cup

If you want to understand horror you have to understand the impulse that drives us to click on a video that everybody tells us we don’t want to see, or the urge to slow down at car crashes and gawk at blood on the highway. That urge is part of what informs our need to write and read horror fiction. It’s a baser impulse, but an important one. We deny it, but you ask me, it’s universal.

15. The Real Horror Story Is What’s Happening To The Horror Genre

Horror’s once again a difficult genre. It had a heyday in the 80s and 90s, evidenced by the fact it had its very own shelf at most bookstores. That’s no longer the case at Barnes & Noble, and Borders broke its leg in the woods and was eaten by hungry possums. I’ve heard that some self-published authors have pulled away from marketing their books as horror because they sell better when labeled as other genres.

16. Ripe For Resurgence?

That said, I wonder if it’s not time for horror to rise again, a gore-caked phoenix screaming like a mad motherfucker. The times we live in often dictate the type of entertainment we seek — and we’re starting to slide once more into a very dark and scary corner of American life. Horror may serve as a reflection of that, equal parts escapist and exploratory — maybe it’s time again to let monsters be monsters, giving a fictional face to the fiends we see all around us. Then again, maybe shit’s just too fucked up. Who can say? It’s worth a shot, though. I submit that it’s a good time to try writing horror.

17. Horror Writers Tend To Be Very Nice

I don’t know what it is, but goddamn if horror writers aren’t some of the nicest writers on the planet. I think it’s because their fiction is like constantly lancing a boil: the poison is purged, and all that’s left is smiles.

18. Horror Needs Hope

Good is known by its proximity to evil. You don’t know what a great burger tastes like until you’ve eaten a shitty one. You can’t know great sex from awful sex until you’d experienced both (pro-tip: the great sex is the one where you don’t cry after and eat a whole container of cake frosting). And so it is that for horror to be horrific, it must also have hope. Unceasing and unflinching horror ceases to actually be horrific until we have its opposite present: that doesn’t mean that hope needs to win out. Horror always asks that question of which will win the day: the eyes of hope or the jaws of hell?

19. Lessons Learned

Horror stories can serve as modern day fables. It works to convey messages and lessons, rules about truth and consequence. If you’re looking to say something, really say something, you’ve worse ways of doing so than by going down the horror fiction route. Great example of this is the underrated DRAG ME TO HELL, by Sam Raimi: a grim parable about our present economic recession.

20. The Stick Of A Short Sharp Needle

Sometimes, horror needs to be really fucked up. It just can’t do what it needs to do unless it’s going to cut out one of your kidneys, bend you over a nightstand, and shove the kidney back up inside your nether-burrow. Horror all but demands you don’t pull your punches, but that kind of unceasing assault on one’s own senses and sanity cannot be easily sustained for a novel-length or film-length project. Hence: short fiction and short films do well to deliver the sharp shock that horror may require.

21. We Need New Monsters

The old monsters — vampires, zombies, ghosts, werewolves — have their place. They mean something. But they may also be monsters for another time. Never be afraid to find new monsters. Horror in this way is a pit without a bottom: you will always discover new creatures writhing in the depths, reflecting the time in which they are born. Just go to a Juggalo convocation or a Tea Party gathering. You’ll see.

22. Never Tell The Audience They Should Be Scared

Show, Don’t Tell is a critical rule in all of storytelling, so critical that you should probably have it tattooed on your forehead backward so that every time you look in the mirror, there it is. But in horror it’s doubly important not to convey the fear that the audience is ideally supposed to feel. You can’t tell someone to be scared. You just have to shove the reader outside the firelight and hope that what you’ve hidden there in the shadows does the trick. You can lead a horse to horror, but you can’t make him piss his horsey diapers when something leaps out out of the depths to bite his face and plant eggs in the nose-holes.

23. Break Your Flashlight

You write horror, you’re trying to shine a light in dark corners. Key word there is “trying” — the flashlight needs to be broken. A light too bright will burn the fear away — the beam must waver, the batteries half-dead, the bulb on the verge of popping like a glass blister. It’s like, what the light finds is so unpleasant, you can’t look at it for too long. Look too long it’ll burn out your sanity sensors. In this way, horror isn’t always concerned with the why or the how — but it is most certainly concerned with the what.

24. Horror Still Needs All The Things That Makes Stories Great

You can’t just jam some scary shit into a book and be like, “Boom, done, game over.” Slow down, slick. Come back to the story. You still need all the things that make a story great. Horror — really, any genre — ain’t shit unless you can commit to the page a story filled with great characters, compelling ideas, strong writing, and a sensible plot. Don’t just dump a bucket of blood on our heads and expect us to slurp it up.

25. Horror Is Personal

Horror needs to work on you, the author. You need to be troubled, a little unsettled, by your own material. Write about what scares you. Doesn’t matter what it is or how absurd — hell, some people think that being terrified of clowns is ridiculous, until you realize how many people find clowns spooky as fuck. Dig deep into your own dark places. Tear off the manhole cover and stare down into the unanswered abyss. Speak to your own experiences, your own fears and frights. Shake up your anxieties and let them tumble onto the page. Because horror works best when horror is honest. The audience will feel that. The truth you bring to the genre will resonate, an eerie and unsettling echo that turns the mind upon itself.

109 comments

  • I just want to thank you for this article. I just did the first draft of my horror novel and got it back from the editor. I need to up the ante on all of this. I was basically writing a thriller, but I need more mood, more fear more… everything. Such a fantastic article. Doing my rewrite now and am keeping this article bookmarked for reminders. Thank you!

  • Interesting. Though I did feel that the majority of this article was most exemplary of your dry, teeth pulling humor. I would have liked some serious thought on the matter rather than your commentary.

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