One of the things I keep running into as a horror writer is people who assume that I’m all about the grotesque. As if, because there are horrible—and sometimes, yes, gross and disgusting—things in our stories, that’s what we horror writers are all about, as if we were somehow pro-death, dismemberment, and destruction. However, if we follow that same train of thought within other genres, then Frederick Forsyth (Day of the Jackal) was pro-assassination, Mario Puzo (The Godfather) wanted crime families to take over, and the authors of every bodice-ripper and Harlequin romance out there are, for want of a better phrase, all about the schtupping.
Are there gross and disgusting things in horror? Sure, sometimes there are. But I think the term horror writer is a misnomer. What we actually are are terror writers. There are complicated treatises out there that clearly define the difference between terror and horror, but to keep things simple (I like simple) I pulled a pair of plainly stated definitions off of differencesbetween.com:
Terror is the intense fear that we feel in anticipation of something happening.
Horror is the revulsion we feel when something we feared for actually happens.
So terror is that feeling you have when you’re walking up the cellar stairs, or down a dark, deserted street alone, and you get that nagging, crawling feeling at the back of your neck that someone is behind you. You don’t turn around, of course, because that would be childish, and you’re an adult for Christ’s sake, and besides, as long as you haven’t turned to look you can tell yourself with complete conviction that there’s no one there . . . but the back of your neck just won’t stop sounding the heebie-jeebie alarm.
Welcome to terror. We’ve all felt it, for one reason or another. Terror is the anticipation, the suspense of something horrible. And just as there are different levels of horrible things, there are different levels of terror of them. A comedic horror scene could have someone simply picking their way across their own lawn in the dark of night, terrified of stepping in a deposit left behind by their new pet mastiff, the huge dog bequeathed to them by a deceased neighbor. Tiptoeing. Sniffing the air for clues. Dreading each step. Feeling the terror of the poo.
The horror comes with the squish, the slight slipping of the foot, and the explosion of stench—just as the horror in the “alone on the street” example above comes when you turn to find someone really is right behind you, reaching for you with one hand while crossing his lips with a finger and saying “Shhhh . . .”
So the terror is the suspense, the build-up, the main part of the scene or story. It’s the fear of whatever you, or more accurately, the character, is trying to avoid. The difference between suspense and terror is, I think, a matter of degree, and that is largely a facet of just what the character is trying to avoid. If the threat is merely winding up with a shoe, sneaker, slipper, or even bare foot, covered in doggie byproduct, then it’s probably more suspense. A good wash—and maybe a little counseling, if you’re extremely sensitive, or maybe have a foot fetish—and that’s it, it’s over. On the other hand, if the threat is of dismemberment, death, or even something that might make you wish for death, such as being driven away in a nondescript white van, bound and gagged for use in someone’s diabolical plan/satanic rites/own pleasure and amusement, then a good wash is the least of your worries, counseling is something you can only hope for, and what the character—and, hopefully, the reader—were feeling was more at the terror end of the spectrum.
Now, returning to my claim that horror writer is a misnomer: most of any story, no matter the genre, and from short story to novel, is about either avoiding something, or striving for something . . . though a case could be made that if you are striving for one thing, you’re trying to avoid another, but that’s a whole different piece. In what is usually termed horror, however, it’s most often about avoidance. In Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (touted as a thriller, I know, but in my mind this one straddles the fence between thriller and horror), Guy Haines spends more than two hundred pages trying to avoid the insane consequences of a chance conversation he had with Bruno, someone he met on a train—someone he had no idea was a sociopath. In Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, David, a young boy, is trying to avoid being drawn into the increasing abuse going on in a neighbor’s house. In Stephen King’s Cujo, all Donna has done is have her car break down in a place where there is no one around but a rabid saint bernard, just waiting to attack.
All of these stories would have been radically different had the protagonists simply given in, with Guy going along with Bruno’s plan, David joining wholeheartedly in the abuse, and Donna simply opening her door and running for it—they might have been a lot shorter, for one thing. But the characters struggled against what was going on, living in fear of the consequences of that struggle: prison, corruption, and painful death for Donna and her son. These stories are about the struggle, the fear, and how they dealt with that fear—they are about the terror, to put a finer point on it. The horror—the payoff, essentially—is what they are trying to avoid, and, if it occurred, would mark the end of the story.
This is something to keep in mind when you’re starting out: you may have invented the coolest villain/monster/natural deathtrap the world has ever seen, or even (in some cases) the most disgusting consequence or action, but without the conflict—the striving to avoid this masterpiece of yours—there’s really no story. Even in what could be termed extreme, or gross-out horror—the work of Edward Lee and Shane McKenzie springs to mind—the story itself is about (hopefully) avoiding these things. Readers of this kind of horror are sometimes filled with the anticipation of my God, what will [insert author’s name here] think of next? but that anticipation is usually a reflection of the terror the characters they read about are feeling.
The term horror writer seems to have a bad rap these days; many people writing in the genre call themselves authors of dark suspense, speculative fiction, or simply fiction. Wander into a brick-and-mortar bookstore and you’re not likely to even find a horror section (though my favorites are the small stores that still do). But whatever you’re calling it, dark-fic, spec-fic, or even just plain horror, what you’re writing about is the suspense; the terror. Keeping that in mind will help make your good story great, and, hopefully, keep your readers coming back for more. And that’s what we all want, isn’t it? To keep readers coming back, so we can terrify them again?
Muhahahahaha . . .
Rob Smales is the author of Dead of Winter, winner of the Superior Achievement in Dark Fiction Award from Firbolg Publishing’s Gothic Library in 2014. His short stories have been published in two dozen anthologies and magazines. Most recently, his story “A Night at the Show” received an honorable mention on Ellen Datlow’s list of the Best Horror of 2014, and was also nominated as best short story by the eFestival of Words.
His next work, a story collection titled Echoes of Darkness, is scheduled for release in early 2016 from Books & Boos Press.
For more about Rob, including links to his published works, upcoming events, and a series of very short—but free—stories, please visit him at www.RobSmales.com.