Friday, October 28, 2011

Shadow Walking

"I find it hard to believe you write that kind of stuff. You seem like such a pleasant person."

One of my students has caught me in the hallway between classes. Her question is half-joking, half-serious, and there's a probing intensity in her gaze, as if she's looking for an answer to a question she can't quite articulate. I smile as I respond.

"Writing that stuff is what keeps me pleasant."

Since it's Halloween (or as horror professionals call it, Amateur Night), I thought I'd talk about writing horror this time around. I can't tell you where my love affair with the Dark began. One of my earliest memories is being a very small child, not even a year old yet, and being carried around the neighborhood at night by my mother. My parents have dressed me in a pink bunny suit -- the kind for kids that leaves the face open -- complete with bunny ears on the hood. I have no idea why they've put me in this thing, nor do I have any idea why we're going from house to house, knocking on doors. The neighbors make a fuss when they open the door and see me. Isn't he darling? I have no clue why they react the way they do, and I don't really care. I'm too fascinated by the small figures walking around, all of them dressed as strange creatures the like of which I've never seen before. They visit one house after the other, candy bags swelling ever fuller with each stop, but the treats don't interest me. I'm intrigued by the distorted faces, the dark colors, and the way these nameless figures move silently through the night.

A few years later when I'm four, maybe five, my parents let me watch Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man on TV with them. Afterward, my father teaches me a simple way to draw the Wolf-Man's face. I can still replicate that drawing to this day.

Not long after, one of the kids in the neighborhood shows me a book he's just gotten. It's called How to Care for Your Monster, and it's by Norman Bridwell, better known for the Clifford the Big Red Dog books. This book tells kids how to find a monster and keep it as a pet. I have to have this book, and I trade the kid a stack of baseball cards for it. Best deal I've ever made.

I could go on and on, from devouring issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland to watching scary movies on Shock Theatre with Dr. Creep every weekend. (After every program, the Creeper signed off with, "I'll be seeing you -- in your dreams. Muhahaha!") Reading Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella, House of Mystery, House of Secrets, and more. And then, in seventh grade, a friend told me about this book he'd just finished reading called 'Salem's Lot. I could also tell you about the very puzzling day in high school when, just before Thanksgiving, the teachers herded us into the gym and played Psycho for us while they stood outside and smoked. I couldn't figure out why the faculty decided on that movie as an appropriate holiday film, but I wasn't complaining.

But that's just the fun side of the Dark, like the costumes kid wear for trick-or-treat. Beneath those costumes is where the true Dark lies. I could tell you about what it was like when my Uncle Red died when I was nine years old, an event which sent me into a several year existential depression. What's the point of living when the end product is a corpse? What's the point of experiencing something good when even as you're experiencing it Time (just another face of Death) is stealing it from you? I could tell you what it was like to grow up with an agoraphobic mother who suffered strange fainting spells at least once a month, a condition doctors were never able to diagnose. I could tell you what it was like to be the weird kid in school, the smart one who tried to pretend he wasn't smart, but who still wore T-shirts with Frankenstein's monster on the front. But if I did, I wouldn't be telling you anything you don't already know. All of us experience this kind of Darkness, and many of you have probably experienced it a far greater degree than I ever have.

For a while after Uncle Red died, I hated monsters and wanted nothing to do with them. I realized that the way I felt -- the pain, the sorrow, the inexpressible loss -- was exactly what monsters in the stories I had once so loved caused. I now understood that when Dracula killed a victim, friends and relatives of that person felt what I felt. And if that victim rose from the dead to become a monster in turn, how much more awful would it be for the victim's loved ones and, if the victim had even a scrap of humanity left, how awful would it be for him or her?

I learned that horror isn't just about fear. It's about pain. And not just physical pain. Emotional, spiritual, intellectual, primal, types of pain for which we don't have words yet . . . The best horror writers and filmmakers know this. It's why I admire Rob Zombie's films so much. Zombie never shies away from his characters' pain. All of them, heroes or villains (although those terms are gross oversimplifications when applied to Zombie's films) are given their due, and their pain is respected.

So if you want to write effective horror -- or even just employ horror effectively as one element of your story -- here are some points to consider.

1. It's not about the monster.

A good horror story is about people. The "monster" -- whether literal, figurative, symbolic, situational, internal or external -- is a catalyst for conflict and change. The core of the story is what happens within your character's hearts and minds as they struggle to deal with their monster. An exception to this: stories like Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, in which the monster's emotional needs are just as important to the novel -- if not more so -- than any other element.

2. Physical pain is easy -- too easy.

A lot of beginning writers -- or writers raised on a steady diet of by-the-numbers slasher and torture porn films -- make the mistake of thinking that if a character is hurt physically in a story, that's enough to evoke horror. Any idiot can write "And then the Hash-Slinging Slasher cut off SpongeBob's arm with his Satanic Spatula." Of course your characters may suffer physical pain depending on the events of the story, but that should be the least of their problems. Cut my arm off, I'll hurt. Cut off the arm of someone I love as I watch, I'll hurt more. Make me cut off the arm of someone I love, I'll be devastated. Make me need to cut off that arm, want to, love to, beg to, and I'll be plunged into a nightmare of insanity from which I will never escape.

3. Horror is internal more than external.

As I said earlier, horror is about what happens inside your characters, not what happens to them. The horror in Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart" doesn't come from the murder the narrator commits, but from Poe allowing us inside the narrator's head so we can experience his (or her) insanity firsthand. In the movie Poltergeist, the horror doesn't come from the ghosts haunting the house, but from the parents' desperation to retrieve their youngest daughter from whatever otherworldly dimension the ghosts have taken her to.

4. Respect all your characters.

If you're going to kill someone off in your story, allow them their humanity. Don't treat them like a generic video game character who exists only to be mowed down by the player. You don't need to provide a character's entire life story, but readers need to get to know that character a bit before he or she bites it, and their death -- however bizarre and horrible it may be -- needs to mean something.

5. Dig deep. Don't be afraid to get personal.

Beginning horror writers go for stories based on well-worn tropes. Vampires, zombies, serial killers, ghosts, etc. Yes, you can write effective stories with these tropes, provided you put a unique spin on them. But if you want to write really good horror, you need to dig into your own psyche and find what disturbs you and then make it disturb me. I don't mean writing about spiders if you hate the eight-legged beasties. For example, when I was four and my sister two, our mother left us at home while we were napping. She left to run a couple errands (this is back when she still would leave the house) and she thought she would be back before we woke. We woke up early, though, and we had no idea where she was. We had never been left alone before. I tried to reassure my sister that everything was okay, and because I'd seen people on TV pace when they were worried, I told my sister that we should pace in a circle until Mom got home. She did return shortly after that, and my sister and I rushed crying into her arms. Mom promised she would never leave us alone again, and as the years went by and she became a true agoraphobic, you can bet that I recalled her promised to us with more than a little guilt. This specific experience is mine and mine alone -- my pain -- and I can use it as the basis for a horror story that will seem fresh and unpredictable to readers because it doesn't really on hoary old spookhouse tropes. Plus, they'll be able to relate to it because at its core, the experiences of being abandoned and feeling guilt are common human ones.

Be careful when mining your past for story nuggets, though. Avoid writing thinly disguised autobiography. Use the events as seeds to grow stories from, not as essay topics. And if you've experienced major trauma in your life, revisiting those places inside you might not be a walk in the park. But then again, as it says in the Super Chicken theme song (Google it): "You knew the job was dangerous when you took it."

6. Don't wallow.

Avoid the temptation to go on and on about a character's pain. Too much drawn-out detail -- whether physical or emotional -- and your audience will become numb to your character's fictional suffering. If that happens, readers can't fully engage with your story on an emotional level, and your story loses impact.

7. Be careful.

Is there such a thing as going too far in horror? Clive Barker's famous quote, "There are no limits" would seem to suggest there isn't. But keep this in mind. Readers read to be entertained, even readers of literary and classic fiction who read more for intellectual than emotional stimulation as a general rule. The more extreme your horror is in terms of dark content, bizarre imagery, violence, sex, and emotional pain, the more readers you'll turn off. As John Trent asks in John Carpenter's excellent film In the Mouth of Madness, "People pay to feel like that?" Some of us seek out the darkest fictional journeys we can find, but a lot of us prefer our horror on the less intense side. So if you want a larger audience, consider tempering your horrific elements. If you don't care how large your audience is, then feel free to go as dark as you want. But don't confuse dark with a bunch of blood and guts mindlessly strewn about the page.

So don't be reluctant to walk through the shadows, no matter how dark they get or how many strange shapes you see lurking there. But as you walk, remember: it's not the shadows outside that will thrill your readers, but the shadows within you, within them, and within us all.


Speaking of horror, the new edition of my critically lauded novel Like Death is available for pre-order. If you order between now and Nov. 4, you'll receive 25% off the cover price. Want to see if I practice what I preach? Want to read a horror novel unlike anything you've ever read before? Want to know why everyone talks about the infamous Chapter Thirteen? Then head on over to Apex Books and order a copy!


  1. Tim,

    I was a virgin to the "Amateur Night" statement. Big smile.


  2. Great post, Tim. I remember watching 'Quatermass and the Pit'as a child. The BBC version. What terrified me - and I can still see it now - was this guy runnng to a Church being pursued by footsteps. Apart from disturbed leaves you saw nothing. Then he reached the Church - as a good Catholic I thought he was safe. Jesus on the cross looked down on him. Then all hell broke loose. The secret (Bit like the Exorcist) was in taking evil and belief systems seriously - and relying on suggestion. Let the reader/viewer's mind do the work :)

  3. Although I don't write horror, but rather, mystery and suspense, I learned something about story telling that I think will be very helpful for me. Thanks.