So, Matt suggested a blog post explaining how I tap into the sort of horror that will affect both kids and adults and my first thought was that I hadn’t written enough horror to have a good answer. I’ve only written one thing that’s just straight-up horror: Messenger of Fear, with sales well into the dozens.
But then I scrolled back through my oeuvre (I’ve been waiting a long time to be able to deploy that obnoxious word) and on closer reflection, huh, I do write a lot of horror, I just tend not to think of it that way. BZRK is certainly scary but it’s sci-fi horror in the Alien or Event Horizon vein, so I sweep it into the sci-fi category. And there are certainly major horror elements in the Gone series, but that gets swept into the YA dystopia drawer.
Going way back, the Everworld series I wrote with my wife, Katherine Applegate, has a lot of horror, but also a lot of mythology so I sweep that into the category of, “shouldn’t we have hired Rick Riordan to write that?” That was back in the 90’s and he hadn’t done The Lightning Thief yet, and we probably could have hired him for minimum wage. The series would have sold better, and we would have contractually enslaved a future competitor. Everybody wins! Except Riordan.
I’m sorry, that was a bit of a digression. The point is yes, yes I would like to pretend to be an expert on how to write scary stuff. Let’s see if I know what I’m talking about.
There are two kinds of people: those who think death is the ultimate threat, and those who have a sick, twisted, deviant imagination and understand that death is actually the end of fear and suffering. The instant you are dead, you can stop worrying how you look, what you can eat, and how to weasel out of attending your high school reunion. All done! Candle snuffed out. You’re not just outta here, you’re just not. You occupy no position, neither here nor there. It’s not just Buh-bye! it’s Buh-.
Death doesn’t scare me, you know what does? Mutilation. The forcible removal of useful body parts. That’s why when I meet my daughter’s boyfriends, I’m never thinking “shotgun,” I’m thinking “hack saw”. To be specific, I’m thinking one could use a metal clamp to attach some portion of the young gentleman’s anatomy to the floor, set the room on fire and leave the victim a steak knife. The element of choice is important because it makes the victim an agent of his own mutilation, it transfers enough responsibility that the moment of decision, the moment when he decides to start sawing away rather than burn alive, that moment would be with him every day of his life.
What’s the point of inflicting suffering only to end it in death?
Now, what just happened in your head, blog reader, is also important. It’s useful that you started to wonder if there was something actually wrong with me. I mean, what kind of person thinks up something like that? And that concern is useful because it means I’ve laid down a marker in your brain signalling that we could be going to some very dark places. Look at it this way: two identical roller coasters, one operated by a team of costumed Disney droids, and one operated by a toothless carny with a skull tattoo.
I am your toothless carny.
(By the way, I just Googled the phrase, “I am your toothless carny,” and it has evidently never before been written or said. I could not be more proud.)
Wherever we are taking the story, whatever the specific horror, it’s helpful if you don’t trust me to behave. I don’t want you reassured, I want you nervous. So when I set out to scare people I lay down some early scene to knock the reader off-stride. In BZRK (spoiler alert) I set up what appears to be our protagonist and then kill him in as spectacularly gruesome a way as I can while working with a plunging jet, a football stadium, a flying brain and a cup of beer. In Gone there’s the baby who starves to death in his crib, and a girl beaten to death with a baseball bat. In Messenger of Fear we start with the corpse of a teenager who has shot herself in the head.
I want the reader to understand that I don’t even know what the rules are so I’m certainly not going to abide by them. You know that place you’re afraid to go? I’m taking you there. Get in the car, we’re going right now. You are in the hands of a disturbed individual.
So, I like to create uncertainty, then I want to keep pushing your boundaries, but only so far. You can’t get into the game of trying to top yourself each time because that pretty quickly starts to reek of desperation. And it’s unnecessary. The Stand is not scarier than Pet Sematary, it’s just a different scary. We don’t need to believe Stephen King will turn the scare up to eleven, we just need to know that he’s going to take us someplace darker than we are comfortable with. No one makes you more nervous and sustains it longer than King.
Dread is the thing much more than the thing is the thing. Wait, what? Okay, what I mean is that it’s less about the specific horror – mutilation, burning alive, dad getting crazy and chasing you around the maze with an axe, vampires sucking your blood so you can sparkle too — than it is about the build-up. In the build-up you want the reader unsettled, you want an element of choice, you want feelings of helplessness, and you want the reader to see him/her/their self in at least one character and then you get dread.
It’s not death we dread, it’s all the things leading up to death. In other words: life. Only the living can experience cancer, the slow suffocation of emphysema, Alzheimers, dismemberment, the guilt of committing homicide, loneliness, depression, locked-in syndrome, uncontrollable rage, frantic impotent desperation, or a cold sore on the side of your tongue where it keeps rubbing against your molars.
So, it’s simple, really. Think of something awful. Create a character to inflict that awful thing upon. Give that character some control. Signal that, oh yes, we are absolutely going to go too far. And then try to work in the word, “eldritch” at least once.