One of the most powerful aspects of Horror (in real life or fiction) is the knowledge that something unimaginable is about to happen and that there is nothing that can be done to stop it. It is the uninterrupted march of the inevitable that terrifies… the uncontrolled skid of the imagination that freezes the blood in our veins. It can be as detailed as a plot, or as simple as an action like the tentative turning of a doorknob. It is the amazing unspoken collision between realization and supposition. It is the hue and cry of every Horror fan toward the best written scenes, the anguished phrase, “Don’t open that door!” which rivets our attention nowhere else. This is an established convention of Horror; it is also where your imagination opens its own door to originality.
“In effective horror, the supernatural is not something added to the world of nature; it is the spiritual dynamism of that world” (Morgan 40)…
It’s no secret. We all know there is a monster in there somewhere. It is pointless to deny that fact, to pretend to lull the reader into a false sense of security. Remember that if you write Horror, your reader reads Horror; any attempt at deceit could easily result in an annoyed slam of the book covers. Deceit is not surprise; it is talking down to the reader. It makes your words cliché and your story immature. Surprise is more like the magician’s trick: you amaze and amuse, you astonish and suspend disbelief in the name of revealing something obvious and previously unobserved or undervalued by producing a rabbit where a hat was.
It’s not easy. If it was, more people would write bestsellers.
The disappointing thing is how many writers try to get around the Inevitable Horror, thinking it constitutes trite unoriginality, fearing that if their story carries an element of predictability, it will itself be predictable… and boring. But the Inevitable Horror is a real convention of Horror. It’s as old as the oral tradition, and as inseparable as a fleeing coed is from her nightie (it’s not that it can’t be done, but a question of whether it should be done). Most Horror doesn’t survive without it – and its absence is most obvious when you vow never to read that author again for trying to trick you, or a movie relies solely on special effects. Without the Inevitable Horror, an enticing storyline suddenly becomes two-dimensional. Indeed there may be no predictability, but it’s because the plot evaporated.
Evaporation should never be confused with magic.
This is where reading inside the genre is important. We don’t have schools of Horror writing, we don’t have Horror Gurus who spout their wisdom at our behest. What we do have is generations of work that has stood the test of time, that has inspired contemporary writers as well as those who came in between the Us and Them of the canon. One can limit oneself to “Literature” or dive skin-first into the pulps. If one is a Horror writer and one is smart, one will do both and read all that lies in between. Lessons are learned by example in writing, and there are so many examples of how to manage the art of surprise, how to properly deliver a monster in the back alley of prose that to intentionally not-read is professional self-mutilation.
There is of course the argument that one might not want to “contaminate” their original thoughts with established works that once so inserted into the brain results in the potential to plagiarize and have plot or character elements leaking out into one’s own work. But to think that any story is completely “original” is a misnomer. Some say there are as few as two original plots in the world, some say three, some say twenty… others say fifty. It does not matter when every plot is a different shade of gray. What matters lies in the details of plot. To understand what is still available on the buffet table, one needs to see what was left on the buffet table. This means potentially abandoning a story or storyline that has either been overdone or just been done. You cannot know this without reading.
It’s part of the magic.
What isn’t part of the magic is repeating endless plot patterns in the quest for originality. Many novice writers wrestle with this, typically because they are reading the genre. And while it seems a contradiction, the fact is that this is how we learn about voice. So one group of works reads like Stephen King and another like Stephenie Meyer…This is mimicry that comes before hearing your own voice.
The key is this: if you can “hear” and therefore “mimic” Stephen King, then you also know it is not yet your own voice in which you are writing. This is good exercise, and you are in fact learning about your own writing options. Eventually, you will write in your own voice; but reading other authors is not responsible for the delay. Because we learn everything by mimicry, you can imitate Clive Barker or you can imitate Dr. Seuss. But when you first start writing you will imitate someone other than yourself. It’s part of the process.
You have to write all of the other people out of your brain to find your own voice.
Another part of the learning curve is the borrowing of plots. This is fine if you admit that you are taking the plot out for a spin, just blowing out the carburetor on the highway, practicing to see if you can manage orchestrating a whole and complete story of any kind. What’s not okay is marketing Harry Potter with artistic differences and thinking it is original. Again, reading in the genre will alert you to plot patterns. Remember that these are the same patterns that potential editors are quite vividly aware of. They are effective teaching tools, but when you are ready to write the Big One, you need to know what makes your story different while staying within the lines of convention.
Inevitable Horror is not a pattern; it is the heart of Horror. There must be an end and it must horrify. It must be seen and felt and anticipated, imagined and even flirted with. But most importantly, it must be inevitable. Whatever plot your story clings to, there must be that sense of being stuck on the tracks, unable to look away. It must get under the skin and prick the soul.Horror must be unavoidable.
The Most Inevitable of Horrors
Fortunately, we have a built-in sense of Fate lumbering toward us with a scythe. In Horror writing, it pays to understand what makes us different as humans in the animal kingdom – and that difference is the awareness of and our ability to consider the consequences of simply being finite creatures.
For example, there is nine-year-old Edith Wharton, who was shaped by her own close brush with death, “in which her body was in effect violated and overrun by an alien force (typhoid).” She noted that she had been left “prey to an internal and unreasoning physical timidity…It was like some dark, indefinable menace, forever dogging my steps, lurking and threatening…and at night it made sleep impossible” (Morgan 14). Here we can identify with the sick child within us all; the sense that something dense and undefinable is stalking us through life, and that even Mommy and Daddy cannot save us from the unimagined horror of our own mortality.
It is therefore, “not repulsive things as such that literature and film address but those things symbolically realized” (Morgan 17).
The inevitable dawning of that hidden truth spawns greater considerations; it is the trappings of dread. For Wharton, “The disease episode apparently brought home to her the realization from which horror invention flows, that she was a physiological creature and thus subject to physiological assault and even overthrow at any time, and that this takeover would be an occult matter occurring on a level other than that of her quotidian concerns and awareness; she could be blindsided at any moment” (Morgan 14-15). Once we are awakened to the fact that in the end, we are all finite creatures with an unpredictable shelf life, the gambit that decorates daily life takes on new and sinister dimensions. Horror writing exploits that uncanny fear.
So our own fear and regard of mortality is what drives the mind to new and terrible imaginings. We become superstitious and skeptical of what once was innocent. This tendency to speculate and overanalyze “suggests the workings of biomorphic imagination, and the translation process whereby physical jeopardy may achieve later symbolic form” (Morgan 15). This is the birthplace of Horror.
“Creeping lethargy and sterility, biological failure – these are the horror mode’s chief tropes. Horror literature represents a ritualized encounter with that which strikes us as most terrible, what somewhere Clive Barker, paraphrasing Emily Dickinson, calls ‘the soul at zero’” (Morgan 36).
It should come as no surprise then that Death is behind it all. Mortality is the one primal fear shared by everyone and is easy to exploit by venturing into personal territory that can be placed with particular specificity upon the page. But paradoxically, “it is not the purpose of Horror fiction to answer such questions…one source of Horror’s popularity is that its questions are unanswerable. At its heart is a single certainty – that in Hamlet’s words, “all that live must die” – and a single question, “what then?” (Winter 127).
The Horror is: we cannot know. We can only stand before the hard fact of our own fears and vulnerabilities, imaginations running wild. It doesn’t matter what plotline brought you here to bear witness. The scariest thing is watching someone you care about try to open the door and fearing what is on the other side…
And perhaps even more reprehensible and alarmingly inevitable, don’t you secretly want to have a look?
Morgan, Jack. The Biology of Horror: Gothic Literature and Film. Chicago: Southern Illinois University, Board of Trustees, c2002Winter, Douglas. “Darkness Absolute: the Standards of Excellence in Horror Fiction.” On Writing Horror: a Handbook by the Horror Writers Association. Mort Castle, ed. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, c2007.