For a long time, I fancied myself a horror writer. I wanted to be like Stephen King, emulate his writing, emulate the terror.
Problem is, nothing I’ve written has really been scary, with the possible exception of one story that seemed to resonate with a handful of readers.
But now I’m wondering if I’ve ever written real horror.
What is real horror, anyway?
Well, I think “real” horror is going to be different for every reader. I think in some cases, the movies give us a glimpse at what’s scaring audiences. Books aren’t as easy to be frightening with because it takes a lot of words to describe the scary monster popping out of a dark room, but it can be shown easily enough in a jump-moment on screen.
Books are also harder because writers don’t have the ability to use music as a part of that jump-moment effect.
So scaring someone in a book takes a lot more patience and setup. It requires a lot more intimacy and using what’s close to home. Good horror writers can worm into our brains and find those soft, vulnerable places, and then jab sharp things into them.
On my author blog, I talk about this some today. Stephen King does this very well, and it took reading someone else’s writing blog today to bring the technique to the fore. King sometimes uses very close, intimate things we are familiar with to move us toward the bigger, less realistic scares later in the story. Pet Sematary was the example used. Check the blog – and the book – if you want details.
So good horror – that is, fiction which evokes sensations of tension, anxiety, fear, and dread – is often something familiar, something intimate. Horror writers don’t always need to go for body horror ala The Human Centipede. Much of the movie horror we have currently isn’t so much about fear as it is about gore. (My wife calls it “gorror.”) But genuine horror can be – maybe should be – subtle, a whisper rather than a shout, leading us from something we’re already afraid of toward something bigger, and more frightening.
I can’t watch even lighthearted movies with scenes depicting high places. While I have no fear of flying, if you try to get me on the observation deck of a skyscraper I’ll freak, break a sweat, have to shut my eyes (but it will be too late), and generally go all acrophobe on you. Because I’m an acrophobe.
But most people won’t be bothered by that, so while it’s horrifying to me, high places – or phobias in general – are a little more distant, harder to relate to. But losing a child to tragedy? That’s an almost universal fear for anyone with children. Being eaten by something like a huge shark or slavering alien is pretty universal because we don’t want to be food for anything else. A spider dropping out of a hole in the ceiling into your gaping maw as you sleep is fairly horrible to most of us, for obvious reasons. But clowns? Well, some people are terrified of clowns. Others think they’re funny.
Good horror writers find a way to take what’s scary to a lot of us and put it on the page, and make the audience progress from real fears in their everyday life toward bigger, harder to swallow things. That’s how it’s done by the best of them, like King. We don’t have to be shown a set of people sewn together anus-to-mouth for it to be horror. And it need not be anywhere near so extreme to be scary.
All told, I don’t think I’ve been able to do this with my writing. Not yet. Maybe not ever. If I can take something that scares me – something which might be scary to a lot of people, and not just me – and ply my craft to it in a way that makes others relate and sympathize with a character dealing with it, then I’ll be able to say I’ve written horror.
For now, I’m not sure I’m a horror writer, and because of that, I’m not sure what I do write.
Or if it even matters.