The art of fear

So with Halloween just been and gone, the pumpkins cleared away and the entertaining costumed pictures posted to Facebook; I started to wonder how many of us love the concept of horror - can happily sit down and watch a horror film - and yet never once consider picking up a horror novel. 

In some ways I wonder whether 'horror' suffers the same pigeon-holing as 'SFF' with most mainstream readers considering it a trope rather than a genuine and original genre.  I'll never understand how people can sit through however many Final Destination films there are, and rave about new forms of horror such as Paranormal Activity (admittedly not so new now) but wouldn't think that a horror novel could be just as - if not to my mind - infinitely more entertaining. 

There's something fascinating about  horror writing - it's an under appreciated craft. It's relatively easy to get readers to empathise with characters, make them laugh, or cry with the storyline - but to raise the tension slowly, to have them desperately turning the page but also afraid to do so, and then eventually scare the living daylights out of them? In my opinion that takes a whole different level of writer.

The genre has progressed - evolved over the years from the blood-soaked supernatural nightmares of the 80s through to the psychopaths and serial killers of the 90s  - it's now swung to, what I think is a much more exciting and intelligent look at the genre. A mix of elements that can still arouse a primal instinctive fear in humanity but represent everything from the supernatural, psychological, alien and grotesque. The type of writing that leaves you constantly questioning the storyline: was that real or did I imagine it? - and not knowing whether the ghosts in your head would be worse than those you think you've seen in the plot.   The modern horror authors publishing today are respectful of the genre's heritage but not afraid to do something very new with it as well - and frankly, I think they rock!

So how do they do it? Well I asked two of the UK's best and brightest horror writers what it takes to craft a novel that will have you sleeping with the light on. 

The multi award-winning (three times winner of the August Derleth Best horror novel and two times winner of The Reference and User Services Association best novel award - but who's counting) Adam Nevill is a master at the genre.  Having written and published seven novels now, the latest being LOST GIRL he experiments with different aspects of horror: woman in peril, haunted house, apocalyptic - each one playing with a varying aspect of fear. 


His tips on how to write a successful horror novel are: 

1) Read widely beyond fiction categorised as horror fiction. The darker end of literary fiction may surprise you and be a deep weir of inspiration for experimenting with voice, different kinds of point-of-view, narrative style, and new possibilities for writing horror. See writers like Donald Ray Pollock, Cormac McCarthy, John Burnside, William Gay, (early) Ian McKewan, Sara Gran, Sarah Waters, to see how they express horror and the weird.

2) Learn to forebode. You look out on the field at the back of your holiday cottage and you notice a blackened tree with thin branches. The next morning, after a disturbed night filled with a curious dream, you open the curtains and two of the tree's branches suggest they are flung toward the sky, like arms. Odd you never noticed that yesterday. No matter, but you'd rather not look at it at all. Only it catches your eye three days later and you are sure the tree is in a different part of the field. Perhaps it is the angle that you are now surveying it from, but it appears the skeletal branches are now leaning toward the house. You cannot be certain but the tree may also be a bit closer than it was three days before too . . .

3) Don't try too hard. That's the most important thing to remember. Force fear and you force contrivance. Here's the M R James approach. You put your naked arm through a hole in a wall expecting to feel treasure, but instead you place your bare hand onto something that is:

A) “slimy, gooey, dripping, gelatinous and glutinous”


B) You place your bare hand onto something that is "wet".

I'd go for wet every time. Simple, effective and sensory - use the commonplace to describe the sinister and horrible and you strike louder chords.

Neil Spring burst onto the scene a few years ago with his debut novel THE GHOST HUNTERS set on the Borely Rectory haunting (known as the most haunted house in England) which is currently being filmed as an ITV film to be released shortly. His second novel THE WATCHERS is out now. Again, this is an author who tends to explore different aspects of things to be afraid of, his novels are set on factual cases and are all the more intriguing because of it. A fabulous writer if you haven't yet checked out his novels then you really should.

Neil tells us that: 

1) Horror is a genre that’s notoriously difficult because the author has to achieve an almost impossible feat: unsettling the reader with circumstances or creatures that are inherently unlikely and quite possibly otherworldly.

The best horror, to my mind, builds at an almost imperceptible, but no less unnerving rate. How? Through gradually unravelling the laws of nature we subconsciously rely on to make predictable, safe choices about the way we live our lives. We have to believe that the fictional world has turned as sick as the state of Denmark in Hamlet, and for the writer to accomplish that they must make the world and its characters believable.

2) Ground your protagonist in the familiar, safe world and build suspense by raising the stakes plainly for what happens when you rip that world away.

3) The malign horror at the heart of your story should always be felt, but rarely seen. That gives readers’ minds the freedom to dwell on the story’s toxicity. Above all we must care about the characters most affected by the terror. We must believe in them and sympathise with their motivations. Otherwise where are the stakes? Why should we care? Once you’ve achieved that connection with the character, I believe the world’s your oyster within the genre. Suspense and tension will grow malignantly around your character’s choices and we’ll follow them until we know they’re safe or if order will be restored.

So if you like your horror and you're not afraid of being afraid - then check out these authors. And if you've never read horror before thinking it's too old-fashioned, or that it couldn't possibly be as engaging as the horror flicks you watch - try something new. You may never sleep soundly again . . .