Today I’m excited to present a post by my fellow Big Bad 2 contributor, Sarah Adams, and man, this is a good one, kids!
Horror is in the Set-Up Too, or, Why Monsters Aren’t Enough
Let me tell you a story…
Once upon a time, my family rented a cabin in the remote woods by a deep lake. (Are you scared yet?) I was about six years old, but a pretty responsible six year old. My mom needed to run into town for something so she left me with my dad and took the three younger children with her. I couldn’t swim, but she probably reasoned that of all her children I was the one least likely to wander into the lake. (You’ve probably got chills by now. You know where this is going. Or you think you do.)
Predictably, Dad fell asleep in the hammock outside, so I poked around for entertainment. Inside the cabin was an antique of a stove – probably one of the very first cook stoves to use gas instead of a wood fire. It’s nickel plated handles and enamel sides gleamed. It was like a stove out of my story books. Each burner had to be lit by hand with a long wooden match. And above that stove was a shelf crowded with spices – more spices than I’d ever seen – rich, exotic, full of magic power. I pushed a chair up to the stove and, by standing on tiptoe, could just manage to reach the shelf. (If you’re a parent, you’re probably reading through your fingers right now. I would be.) I took down the box of matches and drew one out. It was like a red tipped magic wand in my six year old hand.
Okay, stop. Who’s thinking “Oh God, I don’t want to read a story about a little girl getting horribly burned!” How many of you thought this was going to be a story about a kid who got drowned? Or met a monster in the woods? Or that the monster turned out to be Daddy?
So far nothing bad has actually happened. So what makes this a horror story? Or, to rephrase, what makes this story that could send shivers of horror down the reader’s spine?
Partly, it’s in the genre label. This is a blog about horror. You’re already on the alert, ready to respond. You’re prepped to be scared. But we’ve all read horror that isn’t actually scary, or we’ve tried to write horror that just didn’t work so a genre label isn’t enough. What techniques can make a story actually frightenting?
First, the story opening creates hyper-vigilance. When there are the multiple opportunities for harm lurking everywhere – isolation in the woods, deep water and a child that can’t swim, overly optimistic/inattentive parents, fire, even a potential fall from a chair. One way to create fear is to present the reader with multiple potential dangers so that their attention has to go on high alert, unable to focus and cope with just one danger at a time. Hyper-vigilance is often a response real trauma victims have, so if you can momentarily trigger it in your reader, you’ve tapped into their brain’s defense mechanisms. To your brain and body, that feels like you already are in danger.
Second, the dangers undermine the mundane. So far nothing supernatural has happened or even been hinted at, but that can work to the writer’s advantage. A great deal of our sense of safety rests on the assumption that our familiar surroundings won’t kill us. Ask someone with an anxiety disorder what it’s like to live without this baseline level of assurance – you can run from a monster, but you can’t run from the whole world. Subtly removing the reader’s sense that the mundane is safe, reminding us to see the normal features of life as life threatening is horror inducing.
Third, the narrative voice is using understated irony. We tend to think of irony as a technique of humor – we laugh because we understand something a character doesn’t and comedic confusion or stupidity ensues. But irony can also be tragic or painfully embarrassing or frightening. The narrator in this story is speaking as an adult. The adult voice is well aware of all the dangers around the child. The child is wandering unconsciously through them, so at ever step the reader may cringe a little more because her ignorance makes her more vulnerable to the dangers we can see, but she can’t. The irony is deepened when the “fairly responsible” child heads away from the lake, a danger she can comprehend, toward the assumed safety of the cabin, but goes into the most dangerous room in the house and picks up a match.
Irony is hard to do right, especially in horror. There has to be a good reason for the protagonist to be ignorant or innocent of danger so that the reader will feel for the protagonist rather than feeling that the protagonist is “too stupid to live.” You want the reader to empathize – readers should be cringing on the protagonist’s behalf, not rooting for them to get their comeuppance.
To make this all pay off, the potential danger has to become even more real and urgent. If we just leave the little girl here – standing on a chair with a match in her hand – the story fizzles. Bad has to happen or be revealed as already in place. There are lots of different ways to do this successfully depending on the kind of horror you’re writing and the effect you want to leave behind, but that’s a topic for another post. For now, remember that building toward Bad Things by unsettling the reader’s sense of safety preps the reader into a state of anxiety that will help the climax pay off. Without this prep, the ending might read as just an interesting twist. Or worse, lame comedy. When Bad Things happen, you want the reader already keyed up and jumpy, ready to be thoroughly horrified.
Author Bio: Sarah Joy Adams’ short story “A Fitter Subject for Study” appears in the forthcoming Big Bad II: An Anthology of Evil. She has previously published in The Big Bad, Here There Be Dragons, and several online sff magazines. She writes short horror and novel length urban fantasy. Most of her writing is done between freshman writing sections or after the toddler is asleep. She has trained her cat to sit on her shoulder instead of the keyboard, possibly her greatest accomplishment to date.