One day, I had an idea for a story about vampires, a church, and a plucky heroine. It was going to be darkly funny, with lashings of gore and one-liners, floaty black cloaks and lace — just like old Hammer movies. I started writing. But as I set out to navigate university, buying a house and grown up life, the story fell by the wayside… and soon, I realised my story was changing, too. Here’s what I learned from writing my first horror novel.
You may have grown up watching hideously inappropriate monster movies and Goosebumps: I know I did.
Early adulthood was spent gobbling up M. R. James, Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King and Lady Cynthia Asquith’s Ghost Books — brilliant, creaky old ghost tales of the campfire variety — until nothing scared me anymore.
Stuff of nightmares
I mean, I still shriek at jumpy bits (thanks for the popcorn on the ceiling, James Wan).
So when I can’t turn off the lights, or close my eyes without seeing lingering memories of horror… that’s when I take notes.
So, if you want to plumb the depths of awful things, craft truly scary stories and be an author to be feared, not loved.
One rule: everything is nightmare fuel.
A rainy street, a junk shop, an empty field, moving house — the best ideas happen when you’re just carrying on as normal, except something isn’t quite right.
One of my favourite ideas — which I’ll write when this other novel’s done, I swear — came from a foggy November walk in the town I’d just moved to.
Writing horror vs terror
I found a house that looked so strange, so brutal, that I knew I had to write about it. Later I found out that the house — a historic property — and the staff and volunteers who worked there were beyond lovely.
Horror is always lurking below the surface. Start with a base of the everyday: then add your monsters, ghosts, strangeness or ritual sacrifice.
Also: know the difference between horror, terror, gore, suspense, and false security. Juggle those balls lightly and effortlessly — before hurling them (metaphorically) at your reader’s face.
Horror is equal to revulsion: it’s what we feel when we see a dead body, or a car crash we can’t prevent, or someone tells us a plate of spaghetti is witch brains.
Terror and suspense, on the other hand, is looming dread — it’s what we feel before horrors happen, or when we think of the consequences.
Gore can be a blood-red highlighter, adding a visceral sprinkle of horror to a psychological tale, or spooned on in heaps: it just needs to be innovative. Instead of counting how many limbs the have been chopped off a corpse, watch the steam slowly rising from the stumps.
And false security is your Sunday best: save it for a special occasion, so you don’t wear it out.
Another tip: the ugliest monsters are human.
28 Days Later is a critically-acclaimed zombie movie: the undead move fast, instead of the classic slow shuffle. But, the real horror begins halfway through, when our heroes finally make it to a military outpost.
No spoilers, but the army is more of a threat than the zombies.
Atrocities are never — well, rarely — the fault of the supernatural, or even mutated genetic experiments. Humans are what we’re truly scared of: not just serial killers and clowns, but also ourselves.
Horror novels are life
All said and done, horror is life. It’s the mirror that shows all the ugly dust you swept under your nicely-made bed: always lurking, that dust and debris is part of us, inevitable and unavoidable.
And it’s hard to look at — but grossly fun, too.
But leave it too long and it starts to fester and grow. That’s what happened to my twee gothic story: it sprouted legs.
As I grew older, I dragged my half-finished novel with me through life like an old doll. It began to pick up the dust and debris of my experiences.
Under the bed, it became bigger, and uglier.
Novel turned exorcism
Gone were the black cloaks and lace, the old church now crumbled. The plucky heroine became a bit of a cynic.
And the vampires were gone, replaced with another, more vague version of the horror I was trying to express… the ramifications of a tragedy, and how it can push reset on all our progress and turn us back into savages.
(It wasn’t a novel anymore: it was an exorcism.)
Horror novels are about growing up, and new situations, frightening experiences and the reality of death and change: and it’s absolutely terrifying, because it’s all true.
But, if we can dress it up as a witch for Halloween, and tell scary stories around the campfire, it gets a little easier to hear… and a lot more fun to write.