Recently one of my favourite lit mags, Ellipsis, put out a special call for something ‘creepy or unsettling’. Brilliant! I grew up on Clive Barker, Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, Nightmare on Elm Street. Even now I like to be scared and watch Supernatural religiously every week. I did a module at Uni way back in the 90s on ‘the literature of terror’ covering everything from The Castle of Otranto to The Shining. And yet…my notebook remains empty. I cannot think of a story to fit this theme and I am baffled and disappointed.
So this blog is a bit of a selfish one really, I’m going to head through some of my favourite creepy and unsettling stories and some of the things holding me back and hopefully, by the end of it I might have a rough idea for something to submit…and hopefully you might too.
Problem 1: I can’t think of an original horror story. When I think of creepy or unsettling I think of ghosts, vampires, werewolves, zombies, serial killers, phobias, death. And I reckon that’s what 99% of other people will immediately think of too. My life has been horror saturated (in terms of fiction and film). I feel like I’ve read everything scary there is to read, watched everything scary there is to watch. I need to crack open that 1% of original stuff but I’m really struggling. And then, just this week, I came across this story where the end of the world meets … frogs, in a terrific sci fi / horror / apocalyptic tale by JL Corbett in The Cabinet of Heed, that you really need to read until the end.
I’d also really recommend reading In The Hills, The Cities by Clive Barker – one of my all time favourite creepy stories. There is no way I would ever see that ending coming, ever.
Problem 2: my fears are too specific. So, stepping back from the general ‘scary things’ mentioned previously, here’s my other major problem with horror, the things that I am extremely frightened of, someone else would no doubt laugh at if I wrote a story about them*. We’re all different, we all have different fears, so what would cause a collective shudder? I think for me, the answer to this one is death. It’s the one great unknown – what happens when we die? We’re scared of our loved ones dying, we’re scared of dying ourselves. When I read We Are All Alone When the Dark Comes (I mean, even the title is terrifying!) by Donna Greenwood in Horror Scribes, a story that deals with this, it made me feel a bit sick, it was so scary. Don’t be fooled by the child narrator, when you stop and think about this afterwards I guarantee you will get chills.
*My two biggest fears are: First, that a dead spider will fall onto my face when I pull a book down from the shelf. Second, really tall werewolves that stand on two legs walking up stairs. Laugh away.
Problem 3: I can’t do gore. I think gore, done well, can really elevate a creepy story. Small moments of gore, effectively written, are what give that ‘what did I just read?!’ element to a horror tale. Think of the handcuff removal in Gerald’s Game (and if you haven’t read it, off you go!). My attempts tend to end up way over the top and, frankly, revolting so instead I avoid it. I wrote a fairly gruesome story in which a child boiled a cat on a course once and my coursemates looked at me a bit funny after that so … yeah. It’s not for me. But, look how fantastically these two stories use gore. We’re told or shown just a little bit, just enough to turn our stomachs and let our imagination fill in the rest.
Problem 4: I’m too sensitive. I lied a bit earlier on, spiders and werewolves aren’t the worst or scariest things I can think of. But it’s all I’ll allow myself because, since I had my daughter, I cannot bare to think of anything to do with ‘real life horror’. Kidnap, torture, violence, the dark web, the effects of illness on children. Nope. Can’t do it, won’t do it. I used to read lots of serial killer thrillers but now that I’m a mother I really, really can’t. But my friend Janice Leagra recommended a creepy story to me recently that I could just about handle.
I’d also really recommend A Distant Episode by Paul Bowles as a brilliant ‘could really happen’ story.
So there we have it. All we need to do is write an original, universally scary story that deals with death, plus contains a hint of gore but nothing overly unpleasant in it. Yeah. Easy, right? Let me know how you get on, either here or on twitter @jonzeywriter