Thursday, 14 April 2011

It's alive! Tapping the rich vein of horror

Before you head behind the sofa, let me say this isn’t a blog about horror fiction. I’m not the best exponent of that, as I don't read or write much in the genre. Instead, I’m going to blog about horror as a flavour, a spice to add to the mix of any fiction you may be writing or contemplating writing.

Adding a dash of horror is a worthy tradition in literature; the Brothers Grimm were writing about cannibalism a century before Thomas Harris gave us Hannibal Lector, and it’s hard to beat the Room 101 rats in Orwell’s 1984 for nail-biting nightmare potential. Crime writers have known this trick for decades: how to season their stories with a dash of darkness. Arthur Conan Doyle served it up in spades: from The Hound of the Baskervilles to The Creeping Man.

Contemporary crime writers use horror to great effect. Mo Hayder’s Tokaloshe in Ritual and its sequel, Skin, is a great example of how a skilled writer can weave a disturbing sense of the supernatural into hard-hitting crime stories.

Fred Vargas has given us immortal ghosts, werewolves, plague rats and vampires. Enough supernatural horror to satisfy any aficionado, but Vargas does a very neat line in explaining everything in rational terms in the end.

Horror tends to work best when it’s used sparingly, to make a moment visceral, bring it off the page. Try to sustain this sort of shock value and you run the risk of numbing your reader’s responses. It’s the way we’re made. Our brains filter out familiar scents to keep us alert for the smell of danger. A surfeit of horror tends to force the reader to look away or worse, to laugh in order to relieve the tension.

The best writers know this and will provide a little light relief along the way so that you laugh in the intended places (usually right before they make you jump a foot in the air). The very best exponent of this is not a writer but a film director: George A. Romero. Zombies can be funny, but watch out for your feet and elbows.

It’s the same rule that applies with pacing, or erotica for that matter. A glimpse of the monster under the bed (or in it) is more effective that a lingering twelve page forensic examination. Plant a seed, refer to it often enough to make sure it doesn’t die in the reader’s mind, prepare them just enough for the moment when it will bear fruit. Then – let them have it.

It doesn’t need to be raw gore, either. In fact some of the best horror only hints at what lies beneath, letting the reader’s imagination do the rest.

There’s a little horror lurking in everyone’s imagination and the reader’s imagination is among the most powerful tools a writer has – learn how to engage that (and to manipulate it) and you’ll be onto a winning formula.


16 comments:

Tania Hershman said...

Great post, food for thought! I think I have hints of horror in many of my stories but never identified them as such. What makes Fred Vargas so excellent (I haven't read Mo Hayder yet) is not just the humour but the weaving of the personal into the bigger story. It's not just a crime, it's something that affects the hero in other ways. Brilliant! And so it's just not a whodunnit, it's a very rich story, with just enough horror to give you a frisson but not too much that I couldn't read it til 2am (as I just did) and then not sleep peacefully. That's my criteria!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Tania. I agree about that balance and the "weaving of the personal". There's something very intimate about the way Vargas tells her stories, maybe it's to do with the multiple povs that take us right inside the characters? I guess what I'm saying about horror is that it needn't be excessive or genre-led. It's just another part of the emotional connection to the reader. I like to be scared, and I love a writer who knows how to evoke a response from me that's personal and layered. All part of the great reading experience!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

oooh ever thought of this - but what is the definition of 'horror' in this context?

Sarah Hilary said...

Good question, Vanessa. It probably should have its own name. But I also think writers shouldn't rule out using horror qua horror, where it works.

Jessica R. Patch said...

Great post! I agree with not giving a lot of raw gore. I think readers' imaginations are big, just a little help getting it off the ground by giving a glimpse of what's under the surface, is terrifying! I also love the title of your blog.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Jessica. Yes, the reader's imagination will do the very best job of tapping that vein. The writer just needs to point the way.

bitesizebooks said...

Has anyone read John Connolly, one of my favourites, who mixes crime and the supernatural - he also tells you just enough to let the readers imagination take over. He also injects some humour into what would otherwise be quite dark books. Worth checking out but do start his Charlie Parker series at the beginning, one of his darkest!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks for the recommendation, bitesizebooks, I'll check out Connelly.

Maxine said...

Johan Theorin does a good job in The Darkest Room in this vein - not "schlock" horror by any means, but the supernatural, certainly - one never knows if there is going to be rational explanation.

I read Skin and did not think the Tokaloshe theme worked that well - for me. I preferred her more recent novel, Gone, which ditched most of these elements. But I really do not like horror, violence, gruesome gore or the supernatural, so I am probably not the best person to comment!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Maxine.

It's funny, isn't it? I couldn't stand the human horror in Birdman (or Gone, for that matter, although it wasn't as graphic) but loved Skin and Ritual. Mind you, part of that love was for Bristol (where I live) and Flea, who's a wonderful addition to the one-man team of Jack Caffrey-and-his-demons.

Maxine said...

Funnily enough, I liked Birdman as well as Tokyo - although some of these books contained strong content I didn't feel as if it was being presented gratuitously - this is the reason why I long since gave up on authors like Reichs and Cornwell.

I've been a bit scared to read this latest Vargas, based on a few reviews I've read (positive about the book) - not sure if it would be my cup of tea. I've been a bit irritated by a couple of her previous ones, though I quite liked The Three Evangelists for its satire on academia.

Sarah Hilary said...

I'm halfway through the latest Vargas, and for my money it's her best yet. I'm loving it. What in the reviews has put you off?

Jarmara Falconer said...

Great posting,I agree with you, less is more.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Jamara.

Regge Ridgway said...

Shock and awe to wake the reader up and get them invested. Like it. And the blog. Following. Hope you keep up the good work. See you on twitter. My blog is http://characterswellmet.blogspot.com. Reggie Ridgway

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Reggie. Looking forward to tweeting with you!