Friday, October 12, 2012

What makes a horror book scary?

This week's roundtable is for READERS. (Or writers who double as readers in their spare time. What do mean, what's that?) As we move deeper into October and are rounding second base toward Halloween, let's talk scary.

What makes a book scary or creepy to you?

Blake Wilkie: It's all in the pacing and imagery in the descriptions. Like when a vampire bites someone. To say they just sink the fangs in doesn't work. Be descriptive. It it a slow indulging bite savoring the moment or a feral attack out of fierce hunger? Why is it one or the other? How does the bite feel to both involved, etc?

Danielle Piper: The scariest stories I've ever read were the ones that involved situations that could actually happen. I've seen far too much fantasy to be scared by it anymore. I despise authors who rehash something cool they saw in a movie or on TV, trying to steal a cool element they hope you're not familiar with already.

Janet Walden-West: As far as scary -- COULD it happen? Having been in close proximity to the Body Farm, zombies are the scariest thing ever.

Jim Comer: Dread. George Martin's Sandkings.

William D. Prystauk: I have never read a creepy or scary book. Yes, I've read horror, but it never resonates like a movie. Craven, King, Rice, and Nevill, have always fallen short.

Selah Janel: I like books that make me worry about whether the plot could happen to me or not. Even if it's outrageous, I want to suspend my belief long enough to be scared out of my mind by the possibilities. Ray Bradbury's story 'The Next in Line' is terrifying because it deals with the very real fears of death, claustrophobia, not being able to get out of a situation, plus the added element of a callous spouse. I cannot read this story without shuddering and seeing myself suffering from that sort of desperation and loneliness.

With stories that have elements of something supernatural or "other," I want to believe that there may be the faintest possibility that it could happen. It's why movies and books about possession are so terrifying - it's a concept that's so rooted in people's beliefs and faiths and deals with our most primal fears... plus, no matter how logical you try to be... what if it's real? What if it could happen to you and there's nothing you could do to stop it?

Herika Raymer: When a book explores things that could happen, that is what scares me. I prefer psychological thrillers, where the antagonist or monster is not completely shown, but there are plenty of stories where the monster is in plain sight that are just as chilling. I read alot of True Crime stories because of that, Ann Rule / Patricia Springer / Steve Jackson. Stories about pandemics that wipe out whole populations, as presented by Dean Koonz and Stephen King and a few others, those are creepy as well.

James Ritchey III: Scaryness. OH! And Creepyness. But seriously? By exploring stuff we're all creeped out by, and being smart about it. Psychological horror is ten times more effective than bending to genre stereotypes. Feral children and the amputation of hands freak me out, for instance. Three words for ya... Suspense, Suspense, Suspense -- THEN you rip the hapless victim's lungs out.

Joe Bonadonna: When it's in the realm of possibility.

What do writers try to do to make a book scary or creepy, but it just doesn't work for you?

William D. Prystauk: Atmosphere is what they seem to create most as well as characters you want to root for. However, I never feel a jolt. It's clear I need some compelling audio/video to move me along.

Jim Comer: Stephen King lost it somewhere.

Selah Janel: I think sometimes writers try to get a little too clever. It's a fine line -- I like detail, but if too many elements are thrown in together, sometimes it becomes a jumble or downright cartoonish. For example, I love a lot of Stephen King's titles. He's insanely good at what he does, a master. Misery is freaky because it's so possible, plus there's the isolation factor, and his short story N is one of the most terrifying things I've read in my life. However, they both share the fact that they're fairly linear stories that deal with one main problem or element. Annie Wilkes is the opposing force in Misery, and although N takes a little while to develop, there's no denying the tension as minds begin to unravel as the thing in the field is discovered.

Because those are so laser-focus and take their time, I tend to get frustrated with titles like IT and Rose Red. With IT, isn't it enough to have a killer clown? There is so much detail heaped in, that I can't even comprehend everything that's going on, and by the time IT's true nature is revealed I just...I don't know. It's not as scary to me as if it were just a weird clown chasing kids around trying to get them.  With Rose Red, there was so much buildup, so much amazing back story, that the ending almost fizzled. Parts of it gave me nightmares, but the ending pretty much ruined it for me because it was fairly tame in comparison. He's not the only one that's guilty of this -- a lot of horror writers try to cram in a lot, and then their endings have no hope of living up to expectations. Horror is walking a fine line as it is -- if you make things too over the top it can inadvertently trigger a humorous response, so writers have to be careful as to what their intentions with a story really are.

Herika Raymer: Splattergore. I do realize that making a story gory and visceral sells, but to me it is just gross. I have to have a story, not just blood and guts. In some cases, I prefer a story over blood and guts.

James Ritchey III: When they try to make it scary and creepy, but make it nonscary and noncreepy, instead -- by SUCKING as a writer -- by not thinking about what they're putting on the page.

Joe Bonadonna: Go for the jugular. When they want to be cerebral and miss hitting the emotions.

How much gore is too much, and does gore help you feel creeped out during a scary book?

Janet Walden-West: No such thing as too much as long as it moves the story.

William D. Prystauk: If gore is necessary to the story, so be it. However, gore itself does not lead to scary. However, if we love or hate the character, then the element of gore may take on a whole new meaning.

Jim Comer: No. Clive Barker.

Selah Janel: It depends. I generally am not a huge fan of gore, however, in some cases it's a necessity or definitely lends itself to a scene. Tom Hollands vampire transformation scenes in Lord of the Dead are grisly masterpieces that gave me a visceral reaction -- but he also took his time and built up to them so they conveyed a very real sense of danger.

The Sonja Blue series is a great example of how to do splatterpunk right. Nancy A. Collins immediately plunges the reader into a graphic nightmare and keeps them there, but is able to create empathetic characters to balance it out. Plus, her characters and world have reasons for being violent and graphic - Sonja isn't just part vampire or a slayer; she's ruled by the voices in her head and is obsessed with getting revenge on her accidental sire. These creatures play for keeps, so it makes sense to show every little detail.

I'm a huge fan of Clive Barker, because his gore works with his stories - but he also knows when to pull back. Stories like Rawhead Rex and The Midnight Meat Train do have their gross points, not gonna lie. But, those elements don't rule the whole story, so when you stumble upon them you almost have to re-read them to make sure you got that detail right. It's a punch in the stomach, a knock in the teeth. You realize "Oh my God, THAT'S what could happen!?" He plays those scenes absolutely right, otherwise the premises in each story could be too over-the-top or borderline cartoonish. He makes sure to play on people's visceral emotions and not just write another monster story.

Not every horror story needs gore, because not everything that scares us is about shedding blood. The Haunting of Hill House is a great example of subtle horror with a big pay-off. The first time I read this, I was totally confused as to whether the hauntings are real or in Eleanor's head... and either way, the thought of each is freaky as hell because of the way things are portrayed.

Herika Raymer: I guess it depends. On the one hand I read where Hannibal was eating his hunter's brains while the man was still alive and it creeped me out, usually I would just say 'ew' and move on. However, there was no explicit statement of blood and gore everywhere - I guess was got me was that it was clean. On the other hand I have read stories where a room decorated in splatter did creep me out, but those were mostly crime driven stories where the scenes were few and far between. I guess when gore is essentially on every other page, then I get desensitized to it. I do not want to 'be used to the gore', I want it to creep me out.

James Ritchey III: Between 15 and 25 percent gore are my only acceptable parameters--and that includes maiming, body horror and blood. Or more. I dunno--gore doesn't scare me. Read Vampire Junction for how to do it right.

Joe Bonadonna: Gore doesn't bother me, but it can get boring. Don't really need to know every little detail. Leave something to our imaginations.