Can This One Genre Really Boost Your Audience Appeal?

It was late.  I was tired.  I had a headache.  I had taken Tylenol PM, Zzquil, muscle relaxant, + melatonin.  I was in bed.  I had nothing to write with.  So I opened "notes" on my phone + blearily scrawled a memo for a blog post, hoping that I would be able to decipher it come morning.

"don't have an agenda just creepy sometimes"

That was it.  Fortunately for you, I'm not going to leave you to figure out where to put the emphasis on this horrible piece of grammar, I'm going to make sense.  I've had coffee, I can do this.

reader, meet horror

1.  Just Because You're Not "In" This Genre Doesn't Mean You Can't Borrow It
When pitching to agencies + pigeon-holing your book for the market, you have to come up with SOME definitive genre to put your book in.  People are heels-over-head in love with pigeon holes; we have to humour them.  But the actual content of your writing can - probably SHOULD - incorporate elements from more than just a single genre.  Be bold!  Be brave!  Surprise your readers!

2.  This Genre Element Is Incredibly Effective
I see a lot of writers employing some method of torture/pain on their characters to evoke an emotional response in the reader.  This on many levels is an immature tactic.  Yes, if well done it can create sympathy + evoke compassion toward the afflicted, outrage toward the antagonist, etc., but it is tricky to pull off.  (Don't avoid it, though!  It DOES have a place!  Just don't shoot your character full of arrows to make your readers cry + have done.)

The value of horror lies in the emotional trauma inflicted, not merely on the character, but on your reader.  The reader is no longer merely a bystander watching the plot unfold, the situation goes directly to the psyche of the reader with a sucker-punch impact.  You don't even have to minutely describe the pain (physical or mental) of the character: the description of the situation is enough to bear the impact directly through the character to the reader, creating a "ghost-character" of the reader.

I gathered up the shaking, tumbled kid from the snarl of briars, lifting it to the mass of furs over my chest, but as I attempted it, the little thing suddenly spooked as though struck by an electric current, squealing in my arms and nearly hurtling back to the ground as I shrieked and struggled to grasp it.

“Hold still—hold still!” I cried. “Where have I hurt you?”

In the weird moongloom I saw it crane back its head to look at me with one eye—and that eye, rolling, rolling, slowly backward to my face, stark-white and stricken mad.

Sh-h-h-h-h-h…” said a ghost-wind from the wood. “Don’t shout. You’ll scare the poor thing.

My arms slackened and the kid fell in a lifeless pile to my feet. In the great black arch of the wood-mouth, into which the overgrown track ducked and vanished in an instant, there was first a rustle in the air, as of dry leaves shivering in a funeral breeze—a sudden, huge sense of a body there, looming toward me—and then I could see it. Two rows of shining teeth and canines like a tiger’s, coming toward me in the darkness. No head, only the teeth smiling, smiling like they would laugh at any moment. Then a nose materialized, first with black holes for its nostrils and white with bone, flooding over with a dark skin only a shade paler than the night. The eyes jumped out at me in two sudden silver flashes, throwing twin bars of glare across the dark, and then the whole thing had come full from the woodshore before me, horse-big and horse-shaped, without it ears and without any muscle on its frame to hide the gaunt outline of its bones.

Boo, little bunny.

My heart. In my throat. A huge, bulbous, swollen vessel throbbing so hard I felt I would vomit and throw up blood.

No?” it asked; smoke-tendrils which might have served as ears swivelled upward with sadistic amusement. “You don’t like that?

The ground kicked up under my feet and I hurtled backward with a guttural scream wrenching in my ears; at the same instant, above me, the creature’s skull opened from the jaw with a crack, doubling back over its own neck with a burst of reddish powder-cloud and a ripping noise like a butcher breaking open the ribs of a pig. The dark flooded in fold on fold over the thing until it was completely obscured…and then flowed off it backwards again, revealing, not a macabre horse, but something fairy-shaped and man-formed, white as death and shrouded with its own grey-mottled wings.

Is this more becoming to you?” it smiled.

Its teeth were the same.
adamantine rewrite

The imprint of the images on your nerves stays awhile, doesn't it?  Very little of the protagonist's feelings are described: I've left the narrative description to carry past her to you, the reader - so you don't need me to tell you how SHE feels, YOU feel everything for her.

3.  What Can Create Horror?
Again, it needn't be physical pain.  This doesn't have to be an employment of weird slasher-flick moments in your writing.  Your plot will dictate IF you use horror, WHEN you use horror, + HOW you use horror.  Here are some aspects to keep in mind:

SUCKER PUNCH  ||  I've got lots of comments on my writing, saying it is "graphic" + "violent," and yes to an extent there are those elements (periodically, in their proper places) in my writing.  But the knee-jerk reaction,  which belies the power of my use of horror, isn't because of the degree of violence or graphic imagery, it's in the unexpected blow.  The reader didn't see it coming, didn't prepare for the hit to the nerves.  That's one of the number one aspects that makes a horrific moment so powerful: you are totally defenseless to the shredding of your nerves.  Yay!

GROTESQUE, SURREAL, UNNATURAL  ||  Most well-hinged folk find the twisted + bizarre to be unnerving.  It gives us, at the very least, a sense of unease, and can quickly increase in revulsion.

(Tip: converge something WRONG with something aaaaaaalmost right.  In the description above, I've nearly given you the image of a horse - very familiar - but I've stripped it of muscles + ears, rendering it almost right but completely + macabre WRONG.  The reader feels this intuitively + a boat-load of graphic imagery is NOT necessary to make an emotional impact.  Also see "uncanny valley.")

& YEAH YOU CAN BE GROSS  ||  Because gross is a mainstay of horror.  Again, the caveat applies: don't just be gross for the sake of being gross, be smart about it!  Yuck, gross, unsanitary, death, decay - we are both spiritually + physically designed to revolt against their presence.  Here is another place the reader + protagonist instantly share a common reaction.

4.  How Is This Going to Positively Impact My Readers?
Sometimes, it won't.  See above, where some readers have accused me of being too graphic + too violent.  Some people just DON'T LIKE horror.  They don't WANT yuck.  They don't WANT the macabre.  If so, then stories containing this element are not for them.

But the strength of this element lies in the link it creates between the reader + protagonist without the labouring process of explaining + detailing the protagonist's feelings.  As readers, we WANT to be connected with the story.  We want to feel like we are there.  The instant bond of horror achieves this.  The story stays with the reader because he has experienced it, rather than merely digested the words.

in conclusion: don't write off horror as merely sadistic slasher motifs: it can be a very effective tool for the writer to communicate emotion to the reader.  have fun with it!

images via pinterest

4 ripostes:

  1. And this is why I love Poe so much...😏😏😏😏

  2. You gave more of my favorite snippet!
    I agree with you, although I can only take horror in small doses and usually not before bedtime. The Weeping Angels in Doctor Who are about the most I can take.


    Seriously tho, if I learn that a novel has horror elements to it I am 2082302x more likely to read it. Though I've never written it - I plan to one day, but writing good horror is so difficult to pull off well that I so far haven't tried. I mean the number of terrible non-scary horror movies there are out there is truly alarming...

    And I totally agree with not writing off horror as simply sadistic slasher motifs. Slasher horror is actually my least favorite type of horror. I prefer psychological, supernatural, or science fiction horror. These tend to be able to instill true feelings of dread and powerlessness in ways that slasher/gore horror just can't. And Stephen King, master of the genre, has stated that gore is actually the lowest form of horror - if he can't figure out another way to scare you, he'll throw in some gore. But just gore by itself, in my opinion, makes for a fairly weak horror experience.

    *steps off stage* Anyway. I just really like horror. XD

    1. P.S. My name is showing up as "Unknown" for some reason, but this is Alex Costello speaking, if anyone was confused.