The question is simple: How to write awe-inspiring stories that leave readers panting and our bank accounts swelling.
What worked for M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood in the 20s, Lovecraft in the 30s, Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury in the 50s, Robert Aickman in the 60s, Stephen King in the 70s, Stephen King and Clive Barker in the 80s, Stephen King, Peter Straub, Rick McCammon and Dan Simmons in the 90s won't necessarily frighten or entertain readers in the 2000s. What will?
During a course in "Contemporary Horror Fiction" at Moravian College in Pennsylvania, I asked thirty-two undergraduates, who represented every major from accounting to zoology, exactly that question as well as several others in a market survey of this genre's traditionally most enthusiastic audience: young adults.
I first asked, "What are the elements that make for a good horror story?" And then had them explore the flip-side: "What ruins a horror story for you?"
Would their answers reveal a difference between "standards" that critics and teachers have set for contemporary horror versus the personal criteria that readers use as they stand in front of the rack at Barnes and Noble and decide whether or not to reach for their wallets?
Even a cursory glance at best-seller lists, especially those from decades past, reveals the striking difference between popular taste (what sells) and critical taste (what's praised). That sounds hideously commercial, and any writer who would slavishly follow the results of a market survey is bound to write perfunctory, uninspired drivel.
But there is also too much focus in school on literature written mainly for an audience of critics and teachers. That's a shame because the true glory of literature lies in its ability to hold an audience spellbound with the power of narrative, which is our oldest and most prevalent way of understanding the world.
We've always told stories to each other, especially horror and fantasy stories, as a way of mentally shaping and reshaping the inscrutable universe around us. Although one may deplore and berate TV and movies as sugar-water substitutes for the meat and potatoes of literature, these media satisfy the human thirst for story, for narrative.
And whenever a "serious" writer forsakes the obligation to tell a good story, whenever the purpose for writing is no longer to weave the magic spell of narrative but to produce "great art" and to please elitist critics, that writer will surely be replaced by movies and TV -- or a better storyteller.
So I agree with J.N. Williamson, who in connection with this course appeared at our college for a lecture and public reading. This popular American novelist said to my students one day in class: "Art is accidental; it is incidental to having told our story as best we can."
The fact that more than one hundred students tried to register for the thirty-two available seats in this course is evidence that horror authors like Williamson have never lost their commitment to tell a good story, to entertain—and students know that. Therefore, an attempt to understand the expectations of readers in this genre isn't a bad thing; indeed, it is a manifestly logical and necessary thing.
The results of the survey surprised me. By the end of the semester, we had read and discussed over forty stories from commercial and small press magazines. Our semester of dark fantasy was brightened by the novels of several "sons": Jackson, Matheson, Williamson, Wilson; as well as by Straub, Koontz, and the King.
Student reaction was as varied as our story types. Some reveled in shock horror and splatterpunk, finding the quiet literary horror tale monumentally boring. Others felt that technohorror and urban allegorical horror spoke most directly to them in this age AIDS and 9/11. Still others couldn't get enough of the ghosts, vampires and werewolves of old. Surely, I thought after presiding over impassioned debates about the literary merits of "Blood Rape of the Lust Ghouls," there is going to be little, if any, agreement among this bunch on the elements of a good horror story. I was horribly wrong.
One result trumped all others: 97 percent of the students listed "suspense" as the primary ingredient of a good horror story. Keep in mind that this was not a multiple-choice survey; these students had a blank page in front of them and could have written down anything. The fact that all but one self-selected the element of suspense further underscores its cardinal importance to them.
In effect, the results say that these readers bring to the horror story one paramount expectation: to be entertained with the element of anticipation, dread, and uncertainty; in a word, suspense. Virtually every student wrote something like:
Their comments on suspense provide a strong clue as to how to handle one of the most challenging aspects of writing horror: providing a satisfying ending. These students preferred for the unrelenting suspense to lead to an unexpected, even shocking ending. They wrote:
Now, all horror scribes owes thanks to Douglas E. Winter, who has engendered more respect for this genre than almost any other modern critic. Yet it is both interesting and instructive that in his essay, "Darkness Absolute: The Standards of Excellence in Horror Fiction," this eminent critic does not once mention suspense.
Yet when professional writers like Dean Koontz and J.N. Williamson instruct us on the craft of writing horror fiction, their primary topic is how to create and maintain suspense. So, at least in this instance, there is a difference between the critic and the reader, for whom the bottom line is to be entertained. No doubt a writer should aspire to standards of excellence. But in order to be read, which is surely a writer's first goal, he had first better make sure he tells a suspense-packed story that leads to a dynamite ending.
What surprised me about the second result was how much everyone -- students, writers, critics -- agreed on it. Believable characters are what hold a horror story together. They are the engines of its power. In his essay "Keeping the Reader on the Edge of His Seat," Koontz, the acknowledged "Dean of Suspense," provides this advice:
Douglas Winter lists characterization as his second standard of excellence and quotes another pretty good horror writer:
My students agreed: they listed believable, sympathetic characters as the second key to a good horror story. Typical of their comments were:
Considering these comments, it should come as no surprise that students voted as their favorite work of the semester Robert R. McCammon's "Nightcrawlers" (Masques I, edited by J.N. Williamson), a suspenseful story of a Vietnam vet's nightmarish guilt, a sorrow which becomes so strong that it explodes with a harrowing and deadly substantiality.
Perhaps another reason for the popularity of "Nightcrawlers" is its vivid setting -- a stormy summer night at a roadside diner in rural Alabama -- and points to horror's third requirement:
A story must be anchored solidly in a believable setting. Modern readers expect the horror story to take place in familiar surroundings that provide a mating ground for the natural and the supernatural. Today's readers have internalized this expectation: a context of normality, a true-to-life backdrop that accentuates the grotesque.
There was a close similarity between my students' comments and those of critics. In "Horrors: An Introduction to Writing Horror Fiction," T.E.D. Klein, Twilight Zone Magazine's first editor, writes that before bringing the supernatural on stage, the writer must first "establish, so thoroughly that we can believe in it, the reality of the world."
One student put this simply as: "I've got to believe I'm there." When another student wrote, "A good horror story needs a balance between the realistic and the bizarre," it's almost as if he had been reading Douglas Winter: "An effective horror writer embraces the ordinary so that the extraordinary will be heightened."
So readers and critics agree: Use of the fantastic does not excuse the horror author from the task of conjuring up a vivid, everyday reality on the page. On the contrary, it increases the importance of that task.
Another strong preference closely related to suspense concerns pace. What should an aspiring horror writer make of such comments as:
Why this desire for a fast-paced, action-packed story? No doubt much could be made of the shortened attention spans of this generation that has never known life without television and Walkmen. And it all would be off topic. The fact is, when they pick up a horror story, these young people want to be entertained.
They may surreptitiously admire James Joyce's dazzling experiments, they may harbor a secret craving for John Updike's perfumed sentences, they may even look to Saul Bellow for help in an existential crisis.
But when they pick up a horror story, they want fun. And that means fast-paced and suspenseful, easy on the literary embellishment, and without a side order of metaphysical reflections on life in a godless universe, thank you very much.
The results here point out a distinction between literary and celluloid horror.These students warned against too much explicitness in literature:
Those who expressed a preference for gore and the emotion of repugnance did so with qualifiers:
Explicitness is an expected part of the genre today; indeed, the job of the horror writer always has been to assault taboos, broadcast our unspeakable urges, and show us the nauseating possibilities that lie within.
But a line separates effective from ineffective use of the genre's extreme and rebellious materials: They must be justified by the story's context, tone and theme. As sometimes-splatterpunk Robert R. McCammon (Swan Song, The Wolf's Hour, Boy's Life) said in an interview:
Many expressed a preference for suggestiveness in description, which we called "narrative blurring -- a phrase T.E.D. Klein uses to summarize the dictum of the father of modern horror:
Such comments illustrate the principle that still guides these jaded viewers of the hack-em-and-slash-em films: Our own imaginations can still scare us more than any author could ever hope to.
Good horror writers merely collaborate with our minds.
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