Of Fear and Monsters: Writing the Impossible

As horror writers, we work towards writing the impossible; creating believable realities for situations that seem impossible. Writing about vampires, demons, winged-kitty cats, whatever… the things that are part of the fabric of unreality that we are expected to breathe life into, readers need two things:

  • A believability that is unquestionable. You need to be able to smell the monster’s fur, see the flesh stuck between their teeth, and find the spot of blood that’s been scrubbed out of their tie but sat too long so there’s still a bit of a stain.
  • A reason to be afraid. We readers are a jaded bunch; the vampire, the swamp thing, the killer tomato — these are creatures of a bygone era that no longer scare simply by being on screen. The fear is tenable in the buildup; the fear comes from the unknown. Give too much, then your reader knows too much, and you can chuck the fear of the unknown out the window.
[pullquote align=”left”]The fear must be fed to the reader a bit at a time in order to hold their interest, and give them the incentive to finish reading the book.[/pullquote]This is the tricky balance: you need to give enough fur and blood and sinew to make the glimpses you catch of the monster fearsome, but if you give your reader too much too soon, the monster loses it’s teeth. Gets cuddly.

The fear must be fed to the reader a bit at a time in order to hold their interest, and give them the incentive to finish reading the book. That’s the point, isn’t it? They need to be salivating over each instant that pushes them deeper into the story: they want to know what happens next; they want the full picture of the thing that you only allow them glimpses of.

They want to know if your characters will survive the thing stalking them, because you’ve built up the creature so much that they cannot deny that real danger is present in the pitch or your plot.

They care about the stakes of your story.

In a really great interview with Joe Hill, he relays the following in regards to Manx in his book N0S4A2:

“There was a novella in NOS4A2 that told about Charlie Manx’s first trip to Christmasland, and about his first wife and his two daughters. That was about 100 pages long. And going into the third draft, I decided to cut it out. I thought there was some really nice writing there, a few moments of suspense, but ultimately, it was like Silence Of The Lambs: Hannibal Lecter was so scary and so great, but he was only onscreen for about 12 minutes. Since then, there’s been movie after movie about him, and now there’s a TV series. And the more we find out about him, the less scary he is. The more we discover, the more steadily his power diminishes. An even stronger example of that is Darth Vader. Look how great he was in the first two films, but then we found out all about him and he turned out to be a shrill, whiny teenager with a petulance issue. And then he wasn’t scary anymore, he was just kind of pathetic. So I came to feel that Charlie Manx was like the shark in Jaws: The less we see, the scarier he is. So I took out all the stuff that showed him when he was still a normal man.”

For horror writers, the challenge is to offer an undeveloped picture that gradually comes into better focus over the course of the novel. It’s like planting a seed of darkness that can grow into something malignant and believable in the reader’s mind, that will cleave to them throughout the story and into the sequel.

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Nightmare (1800) after Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare (1781).Summer of Night by Dan Simmons
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