How Not to Write a Horror Story

This is my first blog. What exactly do I mean by that statement? Is this my first blog on this new site created by my friend and fellow writer, Jack Tyler. No, I mean literally; this is the first blog I have ever written. The original thread that started this blog was on the theme of defining fear. I should stop writing at this point and state that my definition of fear is crafting this post.

End

However, the Blimprider has personally been very kind to me. More importantly, Jack Tyler is a good man. A more significant effort is required. When I first read the initial post from Jack on the topic of fear, I felt relieved. After all, I know a little about fear, terror, and Horror (yes, the H is intentionally capitalized out of respect). My current project is a Kindle Vella serial titled Eternal Prisoners: A Story in the Cthulhu Mythos. Wait, stop right there! Before any reader concludes that I am using this blog post to plug my stupid book, let me explain further. There is a definite reason I mention this specific story. Stay with me, and it will begin to make sense, I promise you. Please and thank you.

When considering the topic of fear, I thought, “Great, this won’t be so bad after all. I can write about either one of my two favorite subjects, H.P. Lovecraft or Cosmic Horror.” Then I read through the other posts in this thread and discovered that both subjects had already been covered. Covered very nicely by C.W. Hawes. Heck, he even went so far as to use proper citations. Sheesh, talk about being up the proverbial creek.

After my initial panic attack had subsided, I devised a devious action plan. I would send Jack another email and tell him, “Sorry, Jack; I committed to writing for this blog before realizing . . . (place any lame excuse here).” Then, I would crawl dejectedly into a room corner and console myself. Something along the lines of, “Life can be so unfair. Sob! My career as a beloved blogger was crushed by fate before it ever started, etc.”

However, do I want Jack and the other talented writers on this blog to think I am some weaselly cowardly type? Of course not! I needed an answer to my conundrum. Suddenly my creative light bulb went off. I had previously written about fear, terror, and Horror (I already explained the capital H) extensively throughout my book (the book’s name was previously plugged). That’s it! Use some of this material, actual excerpts from the book, for the blog. An added benefit is that I will only have to cite myself. Citing correctly can be a pain in the butt (ask C.W.).

Hmmm… What about a blog about the mechanics of writing a Horror story? Many of the readers of this blog may be aspiring writers. When I first decided to write my own Horror story, I sought advice from the so-called experts. Most of them provided me with a list of dos and don’ts. So, it should be easy for me to explain, right? Well, not exactly. You see, I wanted to write a story that I personally would enjoy reading. Most of the stories I love reading fly in the face of any expert’s advice. Therefore, the only thing I am qualified to discuss is How Not to Write a Horror Story.

The experts agree, “To write effectively, one must include all five senses.” I agree with the big guns on this one—for example, John Steele, Episode One, Medusa.

“What am I thinking? What am I doing here? My thoughts run amok in maddening circles. I see–hear–smell–feel–thoughts–emotions. Veils–pain–an old hurt–assault–within four walls. I sense an overwhelming hatred for all things male. Tears–men–hurtful–stupid–man-things. I can sense the brutal attacking–tearing–leering of sweaty… what? Men–brutal and cruel men–all hateful men. “No! Not all men do these things. Not me. I didn’t hurt you.” Can others see her? Hear her? Feel her? Smell her? Did she reveal herself to me alone? Why to me? I mean her no harm. My breathing has become hoarse and ragged.” (1)

Obviously, in this area, I am sympatico with the professionals. There is a second ‘rule’ where I agree with the adept authors. “Write what you know.” Simple advice, but powerful! What would happen to any writer who needed to describe a scene for readers of a real place that they had zero knowledge about? Well, you get the picture.

Experienced, proficient, well-schooled writers will also tell you, “Avoid overused clichés and tropes at all costs!” Well, H-E- double hockey sticks! I love cliches and tropes. That’s why I read Horror stories, watch Horror movies, and love all things Horror. Give me cliches, please. Give me tropes and stack them to the ceiling. Everything I write is chock-full of both. So, after reading this paragraph, if you are an aspiring writer, enter at your own risk. From this point on, everything in this blog is listed as don’ts from the writing advice I received. But it sure is fun to write!

The following excerpts are a tiny sample of How Not to Write a Horror Story.

Fear of the dark, zero light” is definitely an overused trope: Pilar Djed, Episode nine.

“Pilar Djed thought to herself, “I am ready. Let our enemies come. I will greet them with death. They will not pass through me.” Suddenly the laboratory lights flickered once, then twice, then total darkness.” (1)

The phrase ‘total darkness’ is also considered cliché.

Another significant no-no trope. “To defeat the monster, you must find your own inner monster.” Pilar Djed, four excerpts from Episode Nine.

“Pillie scooped a piece of a broken chair from the floor. She turned to face the new enemy with a loud growl from deep in her throat.” (1)

“The Ghasts made coughing guttural noises, planning their attack. Pilar Djed snarled and, without hesitation, ran straight at the pack.” (2)

“Pilar jumped astride the creature’s back. Swiftly she poised the dagger above the monster’s head. Using both hands, she plunged the blade deeply into the Ghast’s eye. The computer wizard heard a loud popping noise as the Ghast’s eyeball erupted and spewed gooey, greenish slime in all directions. The hilt of the ancient blade was finally stopped by the bone ridge of the monster’s eye socket. The knife point was buried deep in the creature’s brain.” (3)

“To their surprise, barring the way stood a smallish figure splotched with greenish blood and guts. Holding a wooden club over its head, snarling at them, with eyes red hot with anger.” (4)

Poor Pilar Djed. At the episode’s beginning, she is referred to as Pillie. By the end of the episode, the others state, “… over its head.”

At this point, I feel an overpowering urge to throw in a cliché or two. The Professor in this story is the King of Clichés. Several times he manages to get in a twofer. Yes! Two clichés in back-to-back sentences. I cherish the Professor; he is the Man! He is my designated go-to cliché guy. The first paragraph is my crown jewel of overused clichés—multiple excerpts from throughout the book, Professor Henry Silberhutte, III.

“Only a worldwide chanting and spell cast could generate enough of the ESP-gifted and telepathic dark energy required to unseal His dreaming home deep under the seas. Awaken Him from his eons-long, dream-like state. Open a portal between Arkham and His place of slumber. I am referring to Him, the vilest, most evil incarnate Chthonic deity or demon of them all, Cthulhu himself. This insane sect of Cthulhu-worshipers would reanimate this Thing, steeped in filth and death. They would help It to rule our world. They must be stopped! Tonight, we intend to strike back.” (1)

“I shudder when I consider the damage this unleashed evil would have wrought had John not burned the rune-covered timbers that framed her portal.” (2)

“These are the only two of our enemies entirely out in the open in our life-or-death struggle. Our War on Chaos. There are many more in that cursed area. Some in Arkham itself. Others are from Salem, Innsmouth, Dunwich, and other more rural Essex County. It has long been a human stronghold for those who worship the Elder Gods, the Old Ones.” (3)

“John Steele’s battle with the Eternal Prisoner, whom I have named Medusa, marks our first encounter with one of their kind. Our ongoing war with the Elder Gods of Chaos may become the first of many such conflicts. To defeat these once human demons, I fear it will become a life-long campaign.” (4)

It was challenging to limit myself to a meager four cliché laden quotes! Sigh . . .

By now, it is apparent to the readers that I ignored the carefully constructed advice gathered from the savvy big-league writing experts. The critical question is why? Fair enough, I will try to answer that query with yet another excerpt or three.

“Some folks like their horror bloody and gory. At the same time, others like myself prefer the type of horror that resides inside the minds of us all. Those dark unseen things that lurk just outside the corners of your eyesight. Horrible things that defy our ability to describe them. The human brain cannot fathom or begin to explain monstrous things with words. However, if you believe evil exists. Then you must also believe that goodness exists. The Yin and the Yang. For each monster, there is a monster slayer. For all the world’s despairs, there are hopes.” (1)

“As the demon’s mind spell was broken, the four friends turned and ran faster than they ever had in their entire lives. Not to escape from the explosions but to get as far away from the sight of the vile creature as possible. A presence that they deeply felt had rattled their very souls.” (2)

“It was difficult to gaze at her and not experience severe cognitive dissonance. The human brain wasn’t created to view or conceive of such a thing. She was a living, breathing demon nightmare.” (3)

Stories of the Cthulhu Mythos are my favorite sub-genre within the Horror umbrella. The problem is that so little of it exists. To be truthful, I ran out of stories to read. I decided to write my own. I aimed to entertain myself and any readers who felt as I did. I wasn’t looking to become a famous author or to become a N.Y. Times best-selling writer. I hope that I have achieved my goal. Cthulhu Mythos fans rock!

“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn”

For those readers who were kind enough to read this blog to its rambling conclusion, thank you. I will leave you with my favorite quote from a completely unknown mediocre writer.

I firmly believe you are not living if you don’t love a good scare.”

~ Tom Davison

Sources

Just me

* * *

Afterward, from the author… 

This series of stories is a salute to H. P. Lovecraft, the master. I would be remiss if I did not recognize the current fact that Lovecraft is a figure that stirs much dispute and anger in today’s hotly politicized environment. My desire is not to espouse intentionally or unintentionally any of the theories accredited to him. I am simply a mediocre writer who likes to read scary stuff. Reading H. P. Lovecraft as a young boy was a significant influence that made me a lifelong fan of all things that are Horror. Lovecraft wrote some very scary stuff.

8 responses to “How Not to Write a Horror Story”

    • I’m not aware of embracing or avoiding cliches. My stuff is very character-driven, and I just follow them where they lead me. There is one tendency I do recognize in myself, though: For complex reasons I may go into at a later time, I tend to write strong female characters, and I have to resist the scene where a man thinks, “A girl. I’m going take her lunch money!” only to have said girl lay an ass-whipping on him that his grandchildren will be talking about.

      What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to entertain…

      Like

      • Jack, interesting that you mention strong female characters. When I first started this story, my intention was to have a man as the lead protagonist. Once I finish world-building, and character development, I let the characters guide the story. After half a dozen episodes I placed a poll on Kindle Vella and asked the readers which character they most liked most. 60 plus % of the readers chose the strong female character. It took that slap in the face, for me to realize she was the most interesting character, and my readers knew it before I did! Tom.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Among other things, I write vampire stories. One thing I noticed when I read a lot of vampire tales was that writers would trip over themselves to tell you how “their vampires were different” and didn’t fear crosses, or didn’t sleep in coffins, or didn’t transform into bats. It’s to the point that it actually became a trope in its own right and the website TVTropes.com actually lists a trope called “Our vampires are different!” I love all the classic vampire tropes from the Universal and Hammer films and had a lot of fun coming up with reasons my vampires did those things.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Goodness, there’s a lot to unpack here. You’ve raised a type of fear that hasn’t been covered yet, fear of the unknown. Fear, in this case, of writing your first blog post. Sure, you don’t face death or dismemberment if you screw it up, but who wants to look like an idiot in public? So, fear of the unknown, even with low stakes, can be huge. Might have hit on your next post there…

    Lovecraft… I came to him too early as a reader. I was 20 or 21, had heard great things about him, and picked up some of his short stories to see how he did things. I was bored out of my mind. I had been raised on a diet of 1950s radiation monsters and Ray Harryhousen’s cyclops, octopus, and sword-fighting skeletons. I wanted my monsters big, brash, and visible! When I returned a decade or so later, I was ready for cerebral horror, and was amazed at how much his writing had improved in my absence.

    I’ve always questioned the “Write what you know” advice. Physical settings, yes. I do tend to set my stories in places I’ve been, but what do I know about hunting demons, being a Cold War spy, or facing down the Elder Gods? Here’s a hint: It rhymes with Zilch. We all, from us to Lovecraft to Stephen King, write about things we don’t know, and the world of literature is a far better place for it!

    But to address your main point, I fully agree. Know the rules of story construction, character building, and so on, but don’t cling too rigidly if you’re a horror writer. After all, you write in a world of fantasy where the rules of our existence don’t apply. Write a good story, and its audience will find it. And, by the way, you had nothing to be afraid of. Welcome to the blogosphere!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A great inaugural post, Tom. I think a lot of writing “don’ts” should be regarded as writing “cautions.” They’re things a lot of novice writers have handled poorly and a lot of excellent writers have done extremely well. So if you’re going to go there, realize it’s been done a lot and you will be judged.

    A lot of this also comes down to “voice” and “experience.” Is it natural for your narrator or your characters to use clichés? Then go for it. Do those clichés feel forced or do they feel like lazy writing? Then maybe steer clear.

    In terms of writing about things like “total darkness,” have you ever experienced it? Do you really know what it’s like? I’m an astronomer and I’ve been literally stuck in rooms next to several-story drops with absolutely zero light (I mean, not even stand still and my eyes will adjust zero light) and my flashlight has gone out. You wanna talk about scared and there’s not even a monster in sight. I feel like I’ve earned the right to use total darkness in a story! As long as you base your writing on honest experiences, you’ll be fine.

    Looking forward to more posts from you in the future!
    David

    Liked by 2 people

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