“The oldest and strongest of emotions of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of unknown.”
— H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature
Are you aspiring to be a horror writer? Do you think you have a spine-chilling plot ready to be served? Well, read on to see what literally pisses off a reader when it comes to supernatural stories. Forgive me for the numerous Lovecraft references about to come, but since he is my favourite horror writer (sorry Stephen), it’s unavoidable.
1. Don’t get too technical when you involve supernatural phenomenon.
No. Never. It ruins the story. Especially in the 21st century. Poe did it in ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ and it totally spoiled the story (for me at least). Had the story been without hypnosis, it would have been great. Lovecraft did it ‘Beyond the Wall of sleep’, and trust me when I say it, it was his worst story. Don’t get too technical about the scientific facts you don’t know. I am not saying it can’t be done. There is a load of treasure you can find when you Google “best sci-fi horror”, but don’t mix science-fiction with ghosts or anything supernatural (At the Mountains of Madness is an exception to this rule). It ends terribly. Aliens? Yes. Ghosts? Big No!
2. Don’t be fast.
Take your time to build the story. Have a rock-solid background, or a foreground ready for whatever is going to come. Understand that slow pace is important for the reader to sink in the feeling of weird. But also keep in mind not to stretch too much without any new content. Elements of horror should be revealed slowly, and it should finally make sense at the end. Many stories with a minimal amount of horror scattered here and there make up for it by their pace. The best examples I can think of in this context are ‘The Temple’ by Lovecraft and ‘The Botathen Ghost’ by R.S. Hawker.
3. Build up the atmosphere.
Take your time and your words, but don’t be shy (of thoughts) to build up an eerie atmosphere. That is the probably the most annoying thing I find about some contemporary horror literature (I don’t remember exactly which). Don’t jump too steadily to the scares. Just like a good horror movie first builds up the scenes and atmosphere, you have to use words. Your words should make the reader’s heart sink in fear, and feel the same as the narrator or the protagonist does.
Here’s a quote from Lovecraft’s essay ‘Supernatural Horror In Literature’ which I think won’t be amiss here:-
The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown force must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.
Don’t mix the second and the third points. They are very different. A good atmosphere can be built in a short pace too, and inversely, an author may fail to build a creepy presence in the reader’s mind even with hundreds of pages.
4. Unconventional horror is totally okay.
Be it King, Lovecraft, Shelly, Poe, or Stine, they always broke “conventions” of supernatural tales. Stine and King brought horror in everyday life, Lovecraft gave birth to Cosmic horror, Shelly’s work was unparalleled in her era. Don’t be afraid to innovate your fear. Let others fear your fear too! (Batman Begins reference).
5. Don’t fill your story with more than you can kill.
I know this is kind of a dark saying, but we are not here to discuss love stories, are we? That being said, don’t involve too many characters just to kill them so that the story moves forward. No. Please don’t do that. I have literally seen so many stories where the author manages to finish the story gracefully just with a single character and that too being narrated in third person…that’s right, no monologue to express the real fear!
On an ending note, I would like to share with you two more paragraphs from Lovecraft’s essay:-
Children will always be afraid of the dark, and men with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars, or press hideously upon our own globe in unholy dimensions which only the dead and the moonstruck can glimpse.
The one test of the really weird is simply this — whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.
Keep this in mind and you’ll know what all a supernatural reader wants from your story. All the best, and keep scaring.
P.S. If you are a Lovecraft fan, check this out. You’ll be overjoyed. It was not the same two years ago!