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BrainPick Horror in writing

Discussion in 'Café Life' started by Howard, Aug 21, 2017.

  1. Howard

    Howard Active Member

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    Bit of an odd request this, but here we go: Can anyone recommend any horror writing that I could take a look at? Books, short stories, whatever. Thing is, I am interested in the suspense and sense of dread that horror should be able to conjure, but I have no idea at all how to write it. Reason being, I have never, ever found anything in book or film scary. Sure, I am as susceptible to jump-scares as everyone else, but actual fear, actual tension, eludes me.
    The only things I have ever experienced that gave me those sensations (and this is when I receive odd looks from other Litopians!:p) is games. Playing, or I would argue 'experiencing", horror games can be truly immersive for me, as you identify with the protagonist and actually fear for them.

    Anyway, any and all suggestions welcome (especially if they are free!) and I am keen to hear your thoughts and ideas on what you find scary and in what medium.
     
  2. Katie-Ellen Hazeldine

    Katie-Ellen Hazeldine Venerated Member Founding Member

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    Cujo quite scared me. Stephen King. Why? A good dog goes mad = tragic. Good dog turns killer. Mother finds herself trapped in a car, guarded by said dog. Child is becoming dangerously dehydrated. How to get out of the car to reach help, with Cujo waiting to tear their throats out?
    I didn't want the child to die. I identified with the mother's predicament, she needed to kill the dog, but I also didn't want Cujo to die. So it scared me more than any of his vampire stuff.
    Carrie was scary for similar reasons. The writer made me care for a doomed target.

    Thrillers frighten me more nowadays, real life horror: The Odessa File, Frederick Forsyth. The Song Before It Is Sung, and Masai Dreaming by Justin Cartwright.

    Dark Matter by Michelle Paver is scary though. An undefined menace, coming ever so slowly into clearer definition, plus the visceral horror of what had already, actually happened at the haunted spot.
     
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  3. Lex Black

    Lex Black Respected Member

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    *SQUEEEEEE*

    *Ahem* Pardon me. Horror is...kind of my thing.

    That being said, I will attempt to spare you a massive essay and matching endless list of recommendations, and only give a short few to start with:

    1. I agree with @Katie-Ellen Hazeldine : Steven King is the success he is for a reason. If I were to brutally narrow down personal favorites of his work to suggest, I would go with "The Shining" (a good build-up leading to some very eerie and increasingly upsetting paranormal goings-on) and "'Salem's Lot" (yes, vampires, but a GOOD book with vampires, and another good setup leading to an increasingly moody, upsetting and at times genuinely tragic tale of supernatural horror in a small town).

    2. "House of Leaves" by Mark Danielewski. If you've not experienced this book, it's...something else. It genuinely is one of those experimental and original works of art where even attempting to describe it beyond the most basic premise risks spoiler territory, but I'll try: a family moves into a house. The house is NOT what it at first appears, and the same could be said of the story itself. Being as into horror as I am, it's very hard to scare me these days, and this book delivers build-up, atmosphere and subtle weirdness so well that it did so by having a character find a coin on a floor as they walked. Yeah. Give it a try if you can.

    Hope this gives you a good start. :)
     
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  4. Katie-Ellen Hazeldine

    Katie-Ellen Hazeldine Venerated Member Founding Member

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    Oh yes, The Shining scared me, deffo, and so did Salem's Lot. The scene where the dead boy hovers outside the window. (Don't invite him in)

    Film have such a head start on books because they have sound, though Stephen King's own film version of The Shining actually scared and upset me more, I think, and was truer to the book..

    What makes a movie scary?
     
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  5. Howard

    Howard Active Member

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  6. Howard

    Howard Active Member

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    Eeep! Ok, maybe not House of Leaves as it is not on ebook and is STUPID expensive. What on earth gives there?!
     
  7. Paul Whybrow

    Paul Whybrow Venerated Member

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    I'm rarely scared by anything horrific in novels, not in a boo and I jump way, at least. I've experienced dread, disgust and loathing after reading about genocide and concentration camps, and that's partly because of what happens when tiny-minded, cruel people are given too much power.

    As I recently commented in another thread, it may be that my writerly eye interferes with enjoying the atmosphere of horror that the author is trying to create. Instead, I cast my eye over it, thinking 'that worked well' or finding a weak description ponder what word I'd have used instead. A normal reader would be glued to the narrative and on the edge of their seat.

    Two classic stories that make me apprehensive, as much for what they don't say as what they do, are The Horla, by Guy de Maupassant, and The Wendigo, by Algernon Blackwood. Both stories flirt with madness and the power of suggestion.
     
  8. Howard

    Howard Active Member

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    @Paul Whybrow This is my issue. What horror I have read just bores me silly, and horror films are just a joke. The writer's attempts to freak me out or unnerve me just leave me cold. The only writer who has come close to bothering me is the Lovecraft, and even then, I tend to prefer his shorter and more subtle works, rather than the larger stories he is known for.
     
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  9. Carol Rose

    Carol Rose Venerated Member Founding Member

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    Pretty much anything Stephen King writes. ;)
     
  10. Robinne Weiss

    Robinne Weiss Venerated Member

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    I agree with the Stephen King comments above. Also, if you want to go back to the classics, Dracula scared the crap out of me.
     
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  11. Howard

    Howard Active Member

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    @Carol Rose I will try King again, but frankly, his writing has never done anything for me.
    @Robinne Weiss Read Dracula. Found it quite dull, I'm afraid.:(
     
  12. Robinne Weiss

    Robinne Weiss Venerated Member

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    Well, it sounds like horror just isn't your thing, @Howard. Maybe you'll simply have to accept that you don't find horror horrible, as I have accepted that I don't find romance romantic. Some things speak to us, and some don't. *shrugs* (we really need a shrug emoji, though what that would look like, I have no idea...)
     
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  13. MaryA

    MaryA Active Member

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    I'm not sure this counts as horror, but I found the Victorian stories of MR James chilling. And Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. Ambiguous implied terror and irrationality impress me more than the overt.
     
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  14. Howard

    Howard Active Member

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    Not an unfair comment, but the thing is, I am convinced it should. There are plenty of things that can unnerve (though not likely scare) me, and I see no reason why they could not happen in books.
    The reason I am interested in this is because in most of the things I have written or plan to write, there are elements that should be disturbing or unnerving to the reader, but I simply cannot find the language to convey them. The issue, to me at least, is that the very nature of describing something, of writing it down, largely diminishes its impact or at least explains away the fear of the item. Things are only scary when you lack context, and writing is the art of giving context through description and narrative.

    Now, obviously I am wrong here, at least to some extent, or the like of Stephen King would never have made his fortune, but I just cannot seem to get any grip on the subject and it is, quite frankly, starting to bother me.
     
  15. Marc Joan

    Marc Joan Venerated Member Founding Member

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    Totally agree re MRJames and Henry James' Turn of the Screw -- these are difficult to beat for slow dread ... subtlety always works much better than gore. I tried to read Stephen King's The Shining, but couldn't get beyond the first few pages -- his writing style just didn't speak to me, so I never tried any of his other books either. You are right that there is an awful lot of horror literature that just doesn't work -- I think it is quite difficult to do well. I think you may have hit the nail on the head when you say --:

    "describing something, of writing it down, largely diminishes its impact or at least explains away the fear "

    - because I believe you need to get readers to generate their own fear through suggestions, ambiguities and things left unsaid. As done in the Turn of the Screw, in fact. If you explain and describe everything, you take away this aspect, and with it the potential for fear.
     
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  16. James Marinero

    James Marinero Venerated Member

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    I do love 'The Haunting of Hill House' (Shirley Jackson). The Trial (Kafka) scared me and I still have a fear of faceless bureaucracy (which I regularly have to deal with on my travels).

    Horror has many forms - e.g. 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' or 'Cancer Ward' and because you cannot get your head around a particular form doesn't necessarily mean that you cannot write in another form (says he wisely who hath not tried).
     
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  17. MaryA

    MaryA Active Member

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    @James Marinero that is so true. Horror takes many guises. I read Stephen King's Pet Sematary years ago at university and wasn't bothered by it at all. Only once I had dogs of my own and known that fear of losing them did I recall Pet Sematary with a kind of horror. I don't know how any parent could sit through it to the end. And the dystopian fictions of JM Coetzee scare me as much as any horror writing.

    Shirley Jackson is superb and terrifying, I'd forgotten about her. Her short story The Lottery has an eeriness all of its own.

    There's another writer who isn't well-known at all, Robert Aickmann. His stories come across as Kafkaesque, a labyrinth. Foreshadpwing the New Weird might be one way to describe them.

    I ordered a copy of The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks, featuring brutal but strange happenings in Epping Forest. Review from M John Harrison here.
     
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  18. Paul Whybrow

    Paul Whybrow Venerated Member

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    I'm most frightened by cruel extremes of human behaviour, particularly when atrocities are justified by political ideology—which allows free rein to sadistic bullies to settle old scores and indulge in nastiness for their own satisfaction.

    This was well demonstrated in Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. Much was made of the brilliantly conceived monsters created by computer-generated imagery, but for me the truly terrifying element of the film was the monstrous behaviour of the villain of the story, a deranged psychopath, a Fascist captain charged with hunting down the rebels opposed to General Franco's regime.

    The creatures of the labyrinth were certainly spooky:

    [​IMG]

    But I dreaded what Captain Vidal was going to do next; a thug in a uniform is scarier than imaginary ghoulies!




    Talking of what's real, I've just started reading a well-reviewed memoir by a brain surgeon. Henry Marsh's Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery
    is gripping from the outset, and his humility, skill and courage are impressive. I'm not particularly squeamish, but reading about how he threads miniature surgical instruments through a patient's brain, guided by the camera on a huge binocular operating microscope, to attach a tiny titanium clamp to an aneurysm, gave me the collywobbles!

    Reality is infinitely scarier than the imagination, and it doesn't get more real than being inside the human brain.
     
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  19. MaryA

    MaryA Active Member

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    Yes @Paul Whybrow the child-eating Pale Man was not nearly as frightening in Pan's Labyrinth as the stepfather Vidal casually torturing and killing off his opponents. It reminded me why I have a soft spot for non-human monsters as opposed to human sociopaths.

    And your post made me think of Robert Frost's poem, Desert Places:

    They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
    Between stars - on stars where no human race is.

    I have it in me so much nearer home
    To scare myself with my own desert places.
    .
     
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  20. Katie-Ellen Hazeldine

    Katie-Ellen Hazeldine Venerated Member Founding Member

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    Absolutely. That film terrified and upset me on both levels, but first and foremost, the horror was real. The captain was the monster. His soul was that frightful thing with the eyes in its palms. Pan, ambiguous, as nature is.
     
  21. Katie-Ellen Hazeldine

    Katie-Ellen Hazeldine Venerated Member Founding Member

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    Some landscapes are haunted, numinous. The echoes may or may not be human but have the power to frighten, even though the threat is not clear.

    Ben Macdhui. The Larig Ghru.

    Ladram Bay.

    Certain hills and woods and ponds.
     
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  22. David Newrick

    David Newrick Well-Known Member

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    As it is gaming that interests you so much and you haven't read horror novels/stories in the past Howard could you not look at writing something specifically for that market?
     
  23. Howard

    Howard Active Member

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    Its not that gaming interests me, specifically, its that it is the only medium to successfully deliver the material. Also, I do not want to write horror, exactly, I just want to see some functional examples of writing achieving the tension and paranoia that I am looking for. It would be a useful skill in general for any of my work.

    I have a read a few horror stories, but none of them have been enjoyable and all just seem a little silly and simplistic. I simply do not understand how tension can be achieved through read narrative; that is what is puzzling me.
     
  24. Robinne Weiss

    Robinne Weiss Venerated Member

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    Maybe you should have a look at psychological thrillers rather than horror, per se? I don't know either genre well, but it strikes me that the psych thrillers are often as horrible as 'horror', and often more complex. I'm afraid I don't have any suggestions for you on what, exactly, to read...I haven't read any thrillers for a long time.
     
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  25. Katie-Ellen Hazeldine

    Katie-Ellen Hazeldine Venerated Member Founding Member

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  26. Howard

    Howard Active Member

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    Yeah, I have stumbled across that already. The author does their best to address the subject, but doesn't really answer my questions.
    I get what people can find disturbing, horrifying or terrifying, even, but what I don't get is how that translates to the written word. For me, writing (well, reading, rather, as the consumer) is just too slow a medium to deliver such emotions. I have read stuff (and am currently reading more) that is supposed to send shivers down my spine, but...nada. At best, they draw me in withe their promise of the bizarre and improbably (looking at you, Lovecraft) but chills of apprehension or fear still elude me.
    It may just be me. I may be deficient.:p I just wanted to add another feather to the writing cap by being able to turn out suspense and thrills and horror in my writing.

    That said, I have spoken to a few readers who read my first novels, and some did say that I creeped them out with certain sections/characters. Maybe it really is something I am just immune to, but still capable of producing? Eh - I'll keep trying to learn!
     
  27. Howard

    Howard Active Member

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    OK, going to add a post to clarify my rambling a bit here, before people start to think I am clueless, stupid or mentally inept.

    I get, in any medium, including writing, how a lot of horror can work. Cruelty, psychopathy, torture (mental or physical) or being thrust into an unbelievable situation such as the one in Johnny Got His Gun, are all horrific and eat at me the same as everyone else.
    In fact, I find such things so disturbing that I actively avoid them, in books or in films.

    What I am after, I suppose (he says, vamping as he tries to find the words) is more explicitly to do with sanity. I would be keen to see writings around someone's world breaking down due to their sanity failing or having left them entirely. The reference I made to games in the first post was a good example. I have no time for gore or jump scares, but the psychology of games like Silent Hill 2 (I know - meaningless to most: bear with me) really resonated.
    That game is the story of a man who is utterly falling apart due to the death of his wife, but, in the midst of his grief, he receives a letter from her, asking him to meet her at their "special place". And so, knowing he is crazy, he heads off to the resort town of Silent Hill to find his...dead wife. We then witness, and indeed control, his descent through utter madness as it is revealed that he in fact killed her as she was terminally ill and in incredible pain, but the evil that lurks in this ancient town has fed on his despair and made it manifest. He ends up literally fighting his own demons.

    That is the sort of thing I am rattling about. I do have a functioning sense of emotions and am not some random sociopath, honest! :D <Maybe they bought it! Phew!>
     
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  28. Paul Whybrow

    Paul Whybrow Venerated Member

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    The last verse of Frost's poem, that you quoted, made me think of Stephen Crane's In the Desert. Poetry is brilliant at encapsulating emotions, due to the synthesis necessary to choose the correct word to represent a mood.

    In the Desert
    is how I feel when I'm editing my novels! :eek:

    In the desert
    I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
    Who, squatting upon the ground,
    Held his heart in his hands,
    And ate of it.
    I said, “Is it good, friend?”
    “It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;

    “But I like it
    “Because it is bitter,
    “And because it is my heart.”
     
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  29. Paul Whybrow

    Paul Whybrow Venerated Member

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    I've forgotten to mention one of the scariest books that I've read in the last few years. It's non-fiction and eye-openingly explicit in the horrors it describes.

    The author is familiar to all of us, for Peter Cox wrote You Don't Need Meat

    My copy is a first edition, so doesn't have the even more terrifying updates of later editions. Probably just as well, for when I read it, I had a vivid nightmare in which I was pursued through a forest by giant, glistening pork chops, who were spitting apple sauce at me, yelling "How do you like it?"

    It was enough to turn Homer Simpson vegetarian!

    I've since upped my consumption of lentils, pearl barley, rice, couscous and bulgar wheat, just in case I wind up back in the Kingdom of Porktonia. :confused:
     
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  30. Luciferette

    Luciferette Active Member

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    Yes! Another Jamesian! Rats is a tale that I find unutterably frightening. That juxtapostioning of a pleasant hotel, a lovely summer holiday, and...well, if you've read it, you'll know. Horrible. Even Wailing Well - a story written for a scouts' jamboree - has more terror in its little finger than most adult horror.
     
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