Why I love Stephen King

Stephen King is synonymous with horror. There are few authors who can compare when it comes to his skill, number of books written and number of books sold. So why do I love Stephen King? Here are five reasons:

(1) He spooked an entire generation

When King write ‘IT’, I wonder if he knew that he would kill a whole generation’s love of clowns. I know few people who don’t have that infamous creature’s image come to mind when they think of clowns, and even less who can suppress a shiver when you talk about that film. The new generation feels little for IT, but for those of us who watched it when we were young, we’ll never be the same…

(2) Carrie

Carrie White embodies the feelings of all teenagers. She was a victim, an outcast and a character who we couldn’t help but identify with. Having to face the overbearing parent, the unsympathetic school teachers and the vicious class mates every day are something that we have all gone through. Let’s face it, who wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to have had her powers at that age? To have been able to have inflicted revenge on those horrendous creatures that are known as teenagers? As much as we tell ourselves that we would have had more control over her powers than she did, we know deep inside that ultimately anyone in that situation would go down in flames.

The power of Carrie is in that while King makes us sympathize with her, he also makes us realize that we would have jumped on that tampon throwing, pig blood dousing bandwagon rather than defend her. We loved Carrie because we hated her.

(2) The Moving Finger

I first read ‘The Moving Finger’ when I was about twelve and it has been the only story I have read that I was too scared to finish. Finally, after 14 years I’m admitting that that short story scared me. Yet I went back for more and finished it. So how did that gem manage to freak me out? Because the characters and setting were so commonplace and the finger was so bizarre. Yet possible!

I still pick up the story once in a while and read it, hoping to find a glimpse of that horror from years ago, but I never find do it. I chuckle when i think that it could have scared me, because really, it shouldn’t have. No story has scared me since, yet I find myself hoping that every new book I read will have something of that essence, of that primal inexplicable fear, that special something that makes me glad I have a hair trap in my sink. But I’ve never found it, and King will forever be the first (and only) author who scared me.

(3) Everyday objects

Chattery teeth, a toy monkey, cars, fridges and don’t forget the Hadley-Watson Model-6 Speed Ironer and Folder. Each of these objects became something sinister, something other than what they were, and while it seems pretty lame in hindsight, when you’re reading them they draw you in. Hi subtle yet powerful characters are confronted with the bizarre, and I find myself thinking what I would do in that situation. The odds are I’d end up as the characters did…

(4) The Jaunt

One of the few stories that I’ve read and could actually hear a characters voice ringing in my head long after I put it down. The Jaunt is a little long winded but worth it. The sheer horror smacks you in the face after listening to the father tell his calming tale before the jaunt. You almost find yourself expecting to blink and wake up on Mars, only hear the commotion and see the… well… you’ll have to read it for yourself. After all, it’s longer than you think… right?

(5) He made me cry

While it wasn’t the gut wrenching full waterworks, a tear or two did fall at the end of the book Cujo. If you’ve seen the film, read the book instead. While I the horror genre doesn’t have a lot of happy endings, it doesn’t have a lot of tear jerkers either. Cujo is about more than just a dog, and when you finish that last page you can’t help but feel sad.

If you’re a King fan, you’ll have noticed that these references all come from early on in his career. I love King’s writing and continue to be a faithful reader, but my dedication to him has wavered somewhat over the years (round about the time The Dark Tower series came out). In my opinion, his best work came in the form of his early short stories, where his work was still filled with raw emotion and wrote for the effect – for the horror – no matter what people had to say.

The Importance of Pacing

 

A good horror story has well-organized timing and pacing.

Think of writing horror as being a magician. You don’t want to reveal all your tricks at the start of the show and then have the crowd walk out halfway through. You also don’t want the opposite to happen – bore the reader while you delay your climax so that they drop the book before the action starts.

Timing and pacing are different. Pacing involves varying the tempo and setting your reader on a ride much like a roller-coaster, with ups and downs, twists and turns. You can use each little event to create a knock-on effect where the tension multiplies and grows until your reader is sitting on the edge of their seat with anticipation of what’s to come.

You need to start off with simple tricks that grow in complexity until your climax. Think of each scene in your short story or chapter in your novel as a different trick in a magic show which add up to creat the whole performance. Imagine yourself on stage and how the audience responds to your actions. Do you need half-naked girls and giant bursts of flame to make the show look good, or will the audience be amazed by the act without the setup?

Keep impressing the reader with your illusions and sleight of hand. Make each trick more difficult than the next until you reach the show stopping climax. But remember to save one or two tricks for the dénouement. Dont let your story fizzle out after the bang, throw in a twist that will leave your reader questioning what they see around them and sleeping with the light on.

Timing is knowing when to have the boogeyman jump out of the closet. You use pacing to build suspense but having your crazed cannibals eat the brave explorers too soon will negate the tension that you’ve worked so hard building. Spending too much time setting up a scene can leave your readers time to predict what will happen or to lose interest in the scene. Just how long can you have the crazed serial killer stalking the protagonist from room to room in the abandoned hotel before it loses its impact?

The question of timing comes down to skill.  As a writer, you will have to assess how much (or little) you need to set up your scene before the climax. This comes with practice and requires a certain skill – much like a magician who plans her act before the performance. Don’t be afraid to use misdirection and illusions, all great tricks use these, there is no real magic behind it.

So go on, give your work some thought and put on a show that entices, amazes and terrifies your reader!

Creating Fear in Fiction


What makes one story give it’s readers a cold chill or makes them leave the light on while another story makes them yawn?

It is important to remember that if your character’s fear is not believable then your reader will not be scared. Your reader experiences the story through your characters, they see what your characters see, taste what your characters taste and fear what your characters fear. If your reader is not convinced that your character is honestly scared, then they won’t be scared either.

Make it believable.
It is hard to instill fear in your reader if they do not believe that whatever your character fears is possible. Almost anything is possible, so if your characters are being chased by rabid, mutated bunnies then that’s fine, as long as you tell the story and the events leading up to it in a believable way. Readers aren’t stupid, and they don’t like to be cheated. It’s worth your while to do research and work on the finer details of how the situation came to be instead of hoping that their imagination will fill in the gaps.

Make Your Characters Act of their own accord.
What your character does when in the grip of fear can either make or break your story. Your characters actions should be believable in that their traits lead them to make that decision, or that they had no other choice but to choose that course of action. Don’t make the terrified cheerleader run straight past the exit and into the basement of the school, she may be a cheerleader but even they can see an escape route.

Leave a Little Mystery
Who doesn’t like a good episode of CSI or Law and Order every now and then? We all do, because they give us a complicated story that, 95% of the time, is dissected down to the smallest detail and summed up in a neat conclusion. That’s a mistake when you’re trying to get under someone’s skin. Don’t explain away every detail to your reader. Often, when real terror strikes, we don’t know the why’s and how’s, and that is what makes it all a little more horrific.

Give your story to someone you know but who doesn’t know the plot. Ask them to read it and be there to watch their facial expressions. You’ll know by the look in their eyes and they way the hold the pages if you’ve hit that sensitive nerve!

Cryptids

Writing a horror story that is based on a ‘monster’ can be difficult. Gone are the days where readers are shocked by an amorphous blob, a resurrected dinosaur or a giant gorilla. Today’s readers’ need something more, they need a fine balance between something that is both ‘real’ enough to be possible and strange enough to be scary.

This is where the field of cryptids can work to your advantage. Cryptids are animals whose existence has not been confirmed by science. Bigfoot, Nessie and The Yeti, amongst others, fall into this category. Most people are inclined to write these off as tall tales, but a grain of truth must exist somewhere amongst the decades of reported sightings.

The key to writing these types of stories is to remind your readers about this. We’re not talking about a once off sighting, these cryptids have been seen multiple times by a wide variety of people. Don’t let your reader forget this!

How do you take a ‘monster’ that’s been the brunt of many jokes and turn them into something? You concentrate less on the monster and more on how you tell your story.

Be Discreet
There’s no need to tell your reader from the start that this monster is what it is. As soon as you say Big Foot, your reader’s mind is filled with connotations that could lead that stop reading or trudge along through your story, not expecting much to come of it. So be subtle and focus on the character and setting before you start labeling your monsters.

Have Auditions
Be cautious about what characters you choose for your plot. For example, if you’re writing about Nessie, try not to make your character a die-hard skeptic who learns the hard way or a fearless believer out to prove Nessie’s existence to the world. We all known to what end those stereotypes come. Unless you’ve got a brilliant twist up your sleeve, avoid those two stereotypes. Spend a little time considering who would be the right person for your plot, it will work to your advantage.

Atmosphere
This will be one of your most important tools in these types of story. You can use atmosphere to increase tension and anticipation, to set the scene and reel your readers in before you unleash your pet in it’s glory.

I’ve mentioned the most common cryptids, but do a search or two on the Internet and you’ll find that a lot of countries have their own mysterious creatures. Many of them are lot more strange and creepy than the well known ones.

Cryptids are an elusive group, often reported but these reports are seldom accompanied by conclusive evidence. It’s the same situation about horror stories about them, many stories have been written about them, be we struggle to find ones that can prove how terrifying these creatures can be.

Gore, guts and gizzards: when to turn your insides out

There’s nothing quite like a steaming pile of intestines plopping onto the pavement to give your readers a chill. When it comes to graphic details in fiction, the question that writers are faced with is this: when is gore appropriate?

It’s difficult to give you an exact formula for when, where and in what quantity you should let the blood soak through the pages, but I do have guidelines that will help you decide when  spilling your characters guts is and isn’t appropriate.

Duration:
Which is more effective, giving your reader a glimpse of a severed hand or an in-depth descriptions of the raw, ragged flesh, the gnarled tendons and splintered bones? If you have built up the tension and anticipation to a high degree, then a glimpse should be all it takes to get your reader’s heart racing, but if your character has merrily walked around a corner and found the bloodied stump by accident, then a graphic description helps to let the reality sink while they try to recognize it for what it is.

Frequency:
Brutal evisceration’s and rapid exsanguination’s can become exquisite images when well crafted by a writer’s words, but as with all good things, moderation is key. A narrative that depicts countless limbs flying through the air as the chainsaw wielding maniac hacks his way through page after page of screaming men and defenseless women, knee-deep in pools of blood and still beating hearts, splitting heads like melons and painting the walls interesting shades of crimson splattered will flecks of teeth…. well, you see the redundancy. I advise writers to conserve their use of detailed mutilations. Timing is delicate tool, learn to judge when to let the hammer fall so as to maximize its impact.

Sub-genre:
This is probably your best guideline for deciding on the level of gore to sprinkle in your story. The gothic, soft, psychological and supernatural sub-genres rely on atmosphere and characterization, where as the extreme, slasher and noir stories are geared for maximum impact. Think carefully about how you want your plot to come across. Do you want to plant a dark seed of an idea that ferments in the reader’s imagination, or leave a blood smeared image imprinted on their minds’ eyes?

Imagine yourself as a hunter. Which has more impact for you: machine gunning a herd of buffalo, or silently stalking a single deer until the time is right for that perfect kill-shot?

Shaun Hutson is an author that creates well crafted tales with intense death scenes. The deaths of his characters are all the more prolific because of his keen sense of timing. I recommend his books for those of you hungry writers out there looking for a new read.

Always remember to be more gentle with your readers then you are with your characters! Set the right mood and vibe before you slice and dice.

What’s in a Name?

Names are an important aspect of any character. They help us point out our characters as individuals, give them life and, if we so dream, make them memorable . We can use names to our advantage as they can convey ideas or meanings and, while there are never ‘bad’ names, there are poorly suited ones. The most common mistake in naming a character is choosing a name for the sake of it and not thinking about the consequences, meanings or associations.

Rhymes?
Having Ben, Ken, Jen and Len all in one story leaves the reader confused and bored. Make sure that there are variations in your choice of names, not just in sound but in syllables. There are thousands of names to choose from, so don’t settle for the easiest or most common.

Avoid clichés:
When it comes to writing horror, we are bound to come across an evil mastermind or two, and when we do, we hate to find them called ‘Doctor Doom’ or ‘The Evil One’ or even those delightful characters who are known by such painful titles as ‘The One Without a Name” or the “The One We Cannot Name”. Give your mad scientist or crazed biologist a believable name, something that makes them seem a little more real and thus a little more disconcerting for your reader.

This applies to our everyday, ‘normal’ characters as well. John Smith and Jane Doe…? Well, they speak for themselves. Put some effort into finding a decent name and surname. When creating a character, write a back story that mentions their parents and ask yourself what this character’s parents would have named them. Those who raise us play a part in shaping our personality. Think of Johnny Cash’s song ‘A Boy Named Sue’.

When it comes to monsters and creatures, creepies and crawlies, think outside the box. Instead of ‘the blob’, look up the translation in another language, it will mean the same thing but add a little air of mystery for those not in the know.

Spelling:
Changing the spelling of a name can work for or against you. If you change the spelling and manage to keep the right pronunciation, then this can add to your character’s unique identity. However, changing the spelling too much can leave the name open to mispronunciation which can affect the way your reader interprets it.

Connotations:
It is inevitable that great names in history come with certain connotations. Let’s take a prime example: Adolph Hitler. Already thoughts and ideas have come into your mind, most of them presumably negative. Be careful if you take inspiration from the names historical figures, both good and bad, as these will lead the reader to draw conclusions about your characters that have no place in your story. On the other hand, choosing a well-known name can enhance the image of your character, providing that he or she fits the general image.

Age appropriate:
A little research can go a long way towards authenticity. The popularity of names fluctuates year by year, and names that were common in the 1920’s were not as common in the 1980’s. If your character is 80 years old, do a quick search on the Internet and see what names were common back then. Little aspects such as these can add extra credibility and authenticity to you story.

Abbreviations:
Don’t be afraid to abbreviate your character’s name, or use their surname as their predominant form of reference. We all give nicknames, drop or add part of a name or (casually or formally) drop the first name completely in everyday life, so there’s no reason why your characters shouldn’t either. A nickname says a lot about the character who has it, and the one who gives it.

Finding Names:
So what happens when you can’t find a name that seems right for your character? Don’t settle for just anything, do some looking around: names are everywhere. So where are some good places to find them?
– Fictional name generators (many are available if you do a quick Internet search)
– Baby name websites (these are useful and some offer statistics about popularity, origins and meaning)
– Watch movie credits
– Open a phone book.
– Take inspiration from history (Salem Witch Trials? Titanic?)

Never underestimate the power of a name. We can’t help but associate meanings and ideas to certain names and while we are not always conscious of this, we do it nonetheless. Giving a little extra thought when it comes to naming your characters means that you give your writing that little extra edge.

Sense and Sensibility

As writers we sometimes neglect our senses. We spend countless hours absorbed in the two-dimensional worlds of pen and paper, keyboard and monitor, often to the point that we forget the different sensations that the world holds. Our five senses help us to function in the world, but some take precedence over others. Sight and sound are our predominant means of experiencing the world around us, and so we transfer these onto our characters. But what of taste, touch and smell?

The feel of soft velvet, the taste of your favorite chocolate or the smell of a new car, all of these invoke different emotions in different people. As do the taste of rancid orange juice, the smell of a burst drain pipe and the feel or centipede crawling up your leg.They trigger thoughts, memories, emotions and reactions.

Think of fear.

It is strong, primal emotion that affects our bodies as much as our minds. When someone is afraid, their hearts begin to race, they sweat, their hands tremble, they struggle to swallow and breathe. If we step it up a notch, take it to the level of terror, then what happens? On an emotional level they feel helpless, impotent, angry, confused or even a strong sense of disorientation and dissociation from events. On the physical side, their mouth dries up, leaving a metallic or bitter taste, they perspire, they can feel their bowels loosen and smell the warm pee that’s soaking their underwear. Let’s face it, fear isn’t pretty. Don’t be afraid to mention the gritty, unpleasant details when your character has to deal with it.

From a different perspective, consider what your character is confronted with, what is causing them to be terrified. As a writer, you’ll have the image in your mind: a rotting corpse, a Lovecraftian being with flailing tentacles, a crazed killer or a child’s toy wielding a blood smeared knife. Whatever it may be, you can be certain that if that situation were real, smells, tastes and textures would flood the scene. Give your reader a whiff of the decomposing corpse, a taste of blood or make them feel the tightness in their chest as your character struggles to breathe.

Not all senses that invoke fear need to be ‘bad’. That charming little girl next door who has just dismembered your character’s cat could smell of baby powder and candyfloss. The familiar touch of a husband’s caress feels great for his wife, until she discovers the truth about him (serial killer? pedophile? victim of the body snatchers?). The first bite into a fresh apple, the sweet and tart flavors mingling on their tongue, mixing in their mouth as the chew and swallow, only to see half a worm wiggling at the core? The horror of a scene can be intensified by contrasting the every day, familiar and enjoyable with the true nature of the situation.

So go on, give your reader the full sensory experience…

Death, Superstition and Warnings

What is a superstition? Some call it a belief in fate or magic, others a coincidence, but regardless of their origin, there are many superstitions out there, particularly those revolving around death and it’s consequences. Basing your story on a superstition, or placing a few discreet portents of doom can add some depth and a sprinkle of foreshadowing to your story.

SIGNS THAT DEATH IS COMING…
A bat that flies around your house three times is an omen of death.
A dropped umbrella in a house is a sign that a murder will take place there.
A white moth inside a house is a portent of death.
When thirteen people sit down for a meal, one of them will die before the end of the year.
If you dream about birth it is an omen of death.
If you cut your nails on a Sunday you’re sure to see blood the next day.
A mirror that falls and breaks of it’s own accord is a sign that someone will die.
If a picture contains three people, the one in the middle will die first.
If you step on a crack you will break your mother’s back.
Six crows seen together are an omen of death.
If a dog howls three times at midnight, death is on its way.
A clock that chimes even though it doesn’t work is an omen of a death in the family.
Looking at your shadow cast by moonlight means you could be the next to die in the family.
When a robin flies through a window into a room, death is following close behind.
When a ceremonial candles blows out, evil is close by.
If a couple owns a cedar tree on their land, and half of it dies, then one of the couple will die soon.
If rats flee from your house, death is on it’s way.

WHEN DEATH HAS COME BUT NOT YET GONE…
The gates of heaven are left open on Christmas eve, so those who die on that night will go straight to heaven.
When a person dies in a house, all windows should be opened and doors unlocked so the soul can escape.
By holding your breath as you walk past a graveyard, you are stopping yourself from inhaling a lost spirit.
If an owl is seen swooping towards the ground on Halloween, it’s collecting souls.
When a candle flame suddenly flickers blue, a ghost is near.
An albatross that flies around a ship that is out at sea is thought to be the spirit of a drowned sailor warning of bad weather to come.
It is bad luck to wear new clothes to a funeral.
It brings bad fortune for a pregnant woman to attend a funeral.
Weeds growing on a grave are sign that that person was evil.
Funerals on a Friday are bad luck.
A woman buried in black will return to haunt her family.
If you have a corpse in the house, cover the mirrors or the person who sees their reflection will die.
A corpse whose eyes are left open will look for some one to take with them.

Now that you know what signs to look out for, will you give your characters a warning of their impending doom, or let them wander helplessly into the icy grip of Death’s hands?

Isolation

What is more terrifying than being alone? Isolation is an intense feeling: complete and utter abandonment, no one to turn to, no one to ask for help. That’s why it is often used in horror fiction, both in the literal and metaphorical sense.

As a writer, isolating your character or characters can lead to an increase in tension. Let’s say that two couples get together and go on vacation. A is married to B, and C to D but A is sleeping with C who is also sleeping with B. D finds outs and goes nuts. If the happy couples’ revelations take places in a crowded hotel, there are too many complicating factors and intervening forces. Put them on a yacht out in the ocean, or a snowed-in winter log cabin and watch how the tempers flare when there’s nowhere to go. Interesting situation with great possibilities.

Michael Chrichton’s novel ” Sphere” is a great example of how isolation can impact a group of people. Without wanting to give away the plot, a group of researchers are trapped in a special habitat miles under the ocean. They are cut off from outside assistance and as the action increases, so does the tension, because they have nowhere to go and no one to turn to for help.

A notable short story about a character in complete isolation is Stephen King’s “Survivor Type” in which a single character survives the sinking of a cruise ship only to be left on a tiny island with only a logbook, a knife and a smuggled load of heroine. This story makes for an interesting read as it explores the question of what one would do to survive.

“Event Horizon” is a particularly disturbing film revolving around a salvage crew trapped on a spaceship. Once again, it is the isolation that plays a crucial role in creating devastating events.

So what is it about isolation that gets to us? Perhaps its linked to our instinctive feeling that there is safety in numbers, or that two heads are better than one. When your characters are isolated, they have no one to reach out and all the decisions (and resulting consequences) rest on them.

An individual that has been isolated for extended periods of time can experience feelings of depression, anxiety, dislocation, sensory illusions and loss of time. Some say isolation can lead to madness. In groups, the dynamics change and so does the ‘normal’ social order.

In what ways can isolation be useful in fiction?
– it stops your characters from getting external help.
– it heightens their stress levels.
– it increases each character’s internal conflict.
– it forces decision making.
– it forces cooperation and rivalry.

We forget how much a situation can change we are alone, especially as a group. Bare this in mind when writing a horror story…