A genre label is pretty much a promise to the reader. If you purchase a mystery, you expect that within the pages will be something that requires solving. A romance novel needs to have a lover affair and YA needs to have…well…young adults. Horror should come with the expectation of being horrified or maybe just a bit scared.
The truth, based on book sales, is that horror is not a very popular category. The reason isn’t because people don’t like a good scare, but rather the category is so loosely defined and has drawn in so many orphans that it is difficult to provide a clear expectation of the contents. I am a horror fan and I am a horror writer. And I can say (or write) with a fair degree of confidence that most horror novels are not in fact very scary. It’s possible that I have read so many that I’m desensitized to the images, but more likely that the stuff relies too much on shock or slasher and that neither mechanism does much for stirring up dread.
Scaring people in writing is a tough job. The king of horror, Stephen King has had some fine moments, but even his work rests more on the merits of story-telling than scaring. In my opinion he has had only a handful of moments. The Shining, It, Pet Semetary, and Salem’s Lot. The rest is great writing, but far from keeping me awake at night. Like I said, scaring people is a tough job and most of us fail more often than we succeed at the task.
To borrow from an old quote—you can scare some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. ButI think that the real issue of horrible horror is an over reliance on the attempts at grotesque rather than an actual attempt to build a sense of dread or to provide situations that resonate with the reader. For example.
When I was a kid, I sat down to breakfast with my brother. We were polar opposites in cereal preferences. I was a Coco Puffs and Count Chocula kind of kid and he gravitated to the Frosted Flakes and Sugar Pops. So there we were enjoying are respective bowls of sugar. I had already read everything on my cereal box so we switched our reading material. As I attempted the puzzle on the back of the Frosted Flakes, an ant crawled down the box. We lived in the country, it was summer, so I brushed it away with little reaction. And then another followed. Out of curiosity, I tipped the box and took a look inside. There was quite the ant party going on. I looked at my brother who was busy munching away on his bowl of cereal in rapid-fire slurped spoonfuls.
“Hey,” I called, although the laughter was already boiling up and it came out more like a hiccup. “Take a look inside, you missed the prize.”
My older brother didn’t like to be disturbed. And against my better judgment I decided to be a wise ass instead of just delivering the news or minding my own business. Then I began to giggle. It was a bad idea. I knew that somehow the bowl of Frosted Ants he was eating was somehow going to be my fault. He looked inside the box and then went pale. He didn’t need to check his cereal bowl as the army inside the container suggested it was impossible that his bowl was anything less than an amphibious training exercise for the insects.
He dashed outside and expelled the contents of his stomach. I could have avoided further trouble if I had shut up or gone to my room and buried my head in the pillow. Instead I laughed. It was uncontrollable. And my howling was louder than the retching noises he made in the back yard. He liked being laughed at even less than being disturbed.
Ants in your cereal is a horrible thing. Pretty horrific if you’re the one eating the cereal, but for everyone else its mostly just “gross.” In my opinion, too much horror relies on these easy to create and to imagine “gross” events. Knives, gross scenes, gross descriptions of creatures are all elements of horror, but hardly the scary stuff. The scare is in the dread and the dread is something we have to carefully guide the reader to. Without it the story losses its intended impact.
There was noting scary about the bowl of ants. Gross but not scary. If I was to tell that story within a story, then the focus would be on the real dread. The calm and determined expression when he re-entered the house. The way he casually considered how I would pay for his experience. The sudden light in his eyes when he looked at the Frosted Flakes and then looked to me and smiled. The run down the short hallway, knowing I would reach the bedroom, but never have enough time to lock the door. His own crazy laughter as he pursued me. A nine year old’s knowledge that the monsters we live with are far worse than the ones we imagine under our beds.
It’s on these fine points that most horror misses the mark. Not that the worse monsters always wear a human disguise, but that dread is a human experience. To pull it off, to really scare the reader, we need to create the experience of dread, not just describe the cause of the dread. Until we can do that better, most horror will continue to be horrible.