Updated: Oct 20, 2021
I love Halloween. Not least because my birthday falls around that period. Nature undergoes the most drastic change in colours and the evenings become cosy. Mostly, I love it because it's an excuse to get into some fancy-dress and have a party. It's also the last night before NaNoWriMo starts and the last chance I'll get for a month to socialise without the pressure to get home and write (under normal circumstances, at least).
I love Halloween for all its spookiness and myth, but I don't love watching all the horror films on TV, with a handful of exceptions (The Fog, Poltergeist, The Last Exorcist). At times, I'd like to be more of a horror writer, but it doesn't come naturally to me. There are occasions when an idea or a voice comes to me randomly and I'll follow it and have managed to produce a ghost story or two, but it's rare.
And yet, writing horror is great practice in learning the art of suspense, tone, atmosphere, dread. Those are just a few reasons to explore this form of fiction. And short fiction is the practice ground for the uninitiated. As someone who advocates that writers should attempt to create a short work in every genre for the purpose of what they can learn from it, even if it doesn't come naturally to them, what better time to be inspired into a dalliance with the darkest of them all but at Halloween?
If you are a horror-author virgin, writing the fantastical supernatural might put you off should your mind not be orientated in that way. But I'm going to presume that, like myself, you view writing as an infinite gift of knowledge and learning through its many trials and that you're a person who relishes overcoming its many challenges, that you'll rise to it. So, where might you start? As with any piece of writing, you need an idea.
Start with the familiar.
The debate surrounding 'write what you know/don't know' is null and void. Write both. Something that is familiar to you will lend the piece authenticity. Adding in an unknown element makes it both intriguing and surprising for you as the writer and, in turn, your reader.
Take something ordinary in life and then think of the worst, most horrible thing it could become. The idea that something horrific could sprout from some normal situation we've all encountered at some point is surely a good place to start: the seemingly harmless little old lady who lives a few doors down who you thought was senile invites you for tea, only to turn out to be a witch who locks you in and plans to boil you in her cauldron and sell your livers, eyeballs and other major organs to the local witch doctor; The young man who owns the local newsagents and always greets you with a cheery smile -- his smile becomes less cheery and more maniacal or demented and he's actually a demon employing kids to do the paper round who each mysteriously disappear when out on the job; The deep, dark well in the woods that is rumoured to be haunted by a little girl who fell down it one hundred years ago. Did she fall down it or was she pushed?; The forest you live next door to becomes a hunting ground for werewolves and your house is trapped in the middle with no way of getting help; your favourite local supermarket becomes a market for fresh corpses in a dystopian world where food supplies have become inconsistent and the poor are sacrificed as food for the rich; the number nine bus you usually take home from work doesn't stop at your usual stop and, instead, carries you and your fellow passengers off to an abattoir or to the set of a snuff film where you are going to be killed; the girlfriend you've worshipped for almost a month invites you to a romantic dinner only to trick you into a labyrinth where the ferocious minotaur still roams.
Once you have an idea firmly fixed, embellish it as gruesomely as you can. Unlike a genre such as science fiction, where there is a duty to explain the what, how and why the science is possible, in horror you have carte blanche to do what you please. The supernatural doesn't need to explain how it came to be, unless it makes for an intriguing mystery. It's the meanest bastard you're ever going to come across and It. Just. Is.
Whereas in any other type of writing I would advocate attention to detail to create a rounded story world, with horror this is where you get to focus on those details with a veil of death and dread upon it. Go all Edgar Allen Poe. Use ghostly or ghastly vocabulary related to death, violence, blood, darkness. Make every movement a brush with danger, like the horrific might jump out at any moment. Make your reader scared to read on, as if just reading might kill them.
I may not write a lot of horror, but I most certainly read a lot of attempts at it. What most of them lack is a sense of anticipation. It's key to any story, but it is most prevalent in this genre. The reader must anticipate something awful is going to happen. They must really believe it. The protagonist is staring death in the face, will cark-it at any moment. And not just that, but in the most gruesome, fingernail-ripping, eternal suffering kind of way.
The great thing about trying this out is that this is where you have the opportunity to go to town and indulge yourself without anyone telling you it's over-written. Be as melodramatic as you want, for the purpose of stretching your imagination and pushing your skills in this scope. Navel-gaze in the horrific to your heart's content. To your bloody, beating-in-the-palm-of-your-murderer's heart's content, that is.
One final ingredient that goes into the bloody pulp of horror soup is the necessity to make real on your promises. Personally, I find as a writer I love creating intrigue and mystery. That comes about in the beginning of a story, enticing the reader into your fictional world enough that they cannot back up, turn around and escape. I'm less enthused about handing over the answers to those questions in the second half than what I posed in the audience's mind at the beginning. It seems unexciting, in a way. Which is complete bollocks, really (the unskinned, horror kind), because any piece of writing should be building towards the climax, which should be the most action-packed, exciting part of the whole piece! Inevitably, the climax of your horror story should deliver on the creature/ghost/psycho/monster/ vampire/goblin/cannibal becoming an effectively depicted entity that your protagonist must battle with, in whichever form that takes.
And yes, that also means you can kill off your protagonist. Something we writers tend not to want to do.
So, go gorge yourself in the bloody, the ghostly, the unthinkable.
You are allowed.