The Horror of It All
by Tim Waggoner
Want to write horror? A lot of folks do. The mainstream publishing
industry may have momentarily turned its collective back on
the genre, but the small press scene is thriving, not to mention
the burgeoning number of horror Ezines on the Net. Unfortunately,
a great many stories published in these markets are uninspired
(to put it kindly) and just plain bad (to put it honestly).
Want your work to stand out from the rest of the lycanthropic
pack? Want to start selling to larger and more prestigious
markets? Want your horror stories to be so good that people
breathlessly race through your prose, barely able to whisper
an exhausted, "Goddamn, that was something," when
they've finished reading?
It ain't easy. But I've got three tips to offer that will
increase your chances of joining the dark pantheon of horror
writers who kick major ass.
1. Beware of clichés.
Read widely, both inside and outside of the horror genre,
so you can recognize plots that have been done to (living)
death. Then youll know better than to write a story
which ends, "And it was all a dream" or "And
then he realized as his lover sank her fangs into his neck
that she... was... a... VAMPIRE!"
When I was in my teens, I wrote a horror story with the embarrassing
title of "Scary Christmas." In it, a young punk
torments and kills an elderly man whose ghost comes seeking
Yuletide revenge. At least I had the good sense never to send
this piece of crap out. Revenge stories are one of the biggest
clichés in horror fiction, and beside that, there's
no tension in them. Readers know exactly how they're going
to turn out every time.
Still, you can make clichés work for you. In my story,
"Blackwater Dreams," published in Bruce Coville's
Book of Nightmares 2, I tried my hand at another ghostly
revenge story. Only this time I took the cliché and
gave it a twist. The man character, a young boy who blames
himself for the drowning death of a friend, is visited in
his dreams by his friend's ghost. He fears the spirit has
come seeking revenge, but the friend isn't angry -- he's lonely.
At the end of the story, my protagonist has to make a terrible
choice: leave his friend to his loneliness, or join him in
his watery afterlife.
In my story "Alacrity's Spectatorium," I twisted
another cliché around. I took the notion that vampires
don't cast reflections and created a dark mirror which displays
only the reflections of vampires. What price would
vampires pay for a glimpse of themselves in such a unique
mirror? More, what would such a glimpse mean to them?
Instead of ending with a cliché, why not begin with
one? Start with "It was all a dream" and build your
story from there. Why not begin with a man discovering his
lover's a vampire and see what happens after that? Or flip
the cliché around. What if a vampire discovered his
lover wasn't another nosferatu but was instead (shudder) a
And try to avoid the most overworked plot in horror fiction,
which author Gary A. Braunbeck (Time Was, Things Left Behind)
describes as a story in which the main character exists only
to get "slurped by the glop." Stories in which characters
are merely props to be eaten, drained, eviscerated, sliced,
diced and turned into julienne fries by your monstrous "glop,"
whether it's a vampire, werewolf or the ubiquitous serial
killer. These stories aren't just boring; they're insulting
to readers who deserve better.
Probably the best way to avoid clichés is to adhere
to one of the hoariest: write what you know. Draw on your
own experience for your story ideas, write about the things
that excite and disturb you, the people, places and events
that form the unique fabric of your existence, which make
your life different than any other that's ever been lived
before. If you do this, you can't help but be original.
2. There's a difference between disturbing readers
and simply grossing them out.
Too many beginners think that writing horror is all about
detailed descriptions of disembowelments and gushing bodily
fluids. They mistake the use of such elements for artistic
audacity and cutting-edge (pun intended) writing. The truth
is, though, that such writers are the literary equivalent
of the kid who jams his finger up his nose and pulls forth
a big old nasty booger so he can wave it in his friends
Good horror -- like all fiction that truly matters -- is
about affecting readers emotionally. True, revulsion is an
emotional reaction, but it's a simplistic one with a limited
effect on readers. They finish your story about a penis-munching
condom, think, Man, that's sick, and immediately forget
all about it. You've failed to touch them save on the most
shallow of levels.
I'm not saying you should avoid writing about the dark and
disturbing. That's what horror's all about, from the quiet
subtlety of a half-glimpsed shadow on an otherwise sunny day
to the in-your-face nastiness of blood dripping from the glinting
metal of a straight razor. But if you are, as Stephen King
puts it, going to go for the gross-out, it has to arise naturally
from the story itself, to be so integral to the tale you're
telling that it can't be removed without making the story
A. Braunbeck's novella, "Some Touch of Pity"
(also an excellent example of a writer taking a cliché
-- the werewolf story -- and putting an original spin on it),
there's a flashback detailing a character's rape. Not just
the physical aspect of it, but what the character experiences
emotionally as the rape occurs. The scene is absolutely brutal,
but it's also completely necessary to the story. If the scene
were toned down, or worse, removed, the story would be far
less emotionally wrenching.
In my story, "Keeping It Together," forthcoming
in the SFF-Net anthology Between the Darkness and the Fire,
I write about a gay man living a heterosexual lifestyle in
a home and with a family that he has created from his own
desperate desire to be what he perceives as "normal."
But it's an illusion which can't be sustained, and as the
story progresses, the house, his wife and young daughter all
begin to decay around him. In one scene he has sex with his
wife out of a sense of husbandly duty, and since she is well
along in her dissolution by this point, their lovemaking .
. . damages her. I created this scene not merely to make readers
go "Ooooh, yuck!" but to further dramatize the impact
of such deep-seated denial on both my main character and those
Remember that extreme elements, like anything else in fiction,
are only tools to help you tell your stories in the best way
you can. But like any powerful tool, they should be used sparingly,
cautiously and always with good reason.
3. Give us characters we care about.
Let me say right up front that this bit of advice doesn't
mean that we have to like your characters. It means your characters
should be so well developed and interesting that we want to
read your story to find out what happens to them. There are
characters -- Ahab, Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lector -- who
aren't always likable (and are sometimes downright despicable)
but who are so unique, so fully realized, that they can't
fail to fascinate. Compelling characters is what memorable
fiction is all about, whether you're writing for the New
Yorker or Cemetery Dance.
In my story, "Seeker," which appeared in the White
Wolf anthology, Dark Tyrants, I write about a disillusioned
crusader who has lost his faith in God and has gone searching
for a nest of vampires in order to prove to himself that there
is some sort of spiritual aspect to existence, even if that
aspect is evil. The plot runs on two tracks. First is a narrative
of the crusader penetrating the forest where the vampires
live, being attacked by them, and finally dealing with their
leader (who I made not merely a vampire but one who has merged
with the Wood itself). The second track details, through various
flashbacks, the events that caused the crusader to lose his
faith and make him so desperate to find a sign -- any sign
-- that there's Something More to life.
If I did my job right, readers will be interested not only
in the action in the story, but also in the crusader himself,
so that when the story reaches its climax and the character's
quest is fulfilled in a way he -- and hopefully readers --
never imagined (no, he doesn't become a vampire himself; remember
what I said earlier about avoiding clichés? I try to
practice what I preach), there's not only an emotional pay-off,
but hopefully readers will leave the story thinking a little
bit about their own spirituality.
There's a lot more to writing good horror, but if you take
the three morsels of advice I've given you to heart, youll
create stories which will not only rise above the generic
tales of flesh-munching zombies and blood-lusting serial killers
that are out there, you'll create fiction worth reading --
and worth remembering.