The horror novel has often been looked upon as the poor relation in the literary world, and yet some of our greatest writers have published novels under its banner. Horror writer (Whittlewood and The Wild Horseman) and former Gothic Society member, Suzanne Ruthven brings us a step-by-step guide to writing horror fiction.
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About the Author
In addition to being the commissioning editor for Compass Books, Suzanne Ruthven is also editor of the popular quarterly creative writing magazine, The New Writer (which she produces in partnership with literary agent, and publisher, Merric Davidson). She lives in County Tipperary, Ireland.
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Compass Points Horror upon Horror
Researching and Writing the Horror Novel
By Suzanne Ruthven
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2013 Suzanne Ruthven
All rights reserved.
Tales of the Dead
"The time has come to talk of terror and horror," observed the academic authors of In Search of Dracula, Dr Raymond McNally and Professor Radu Florescu. "Strictly speaking they are two different things – but, of course, we seldom speak strictly! Both are responses to the frightful thing, person, deed or circumstance. But terror is the extreme rational fear of some accepted form of reality, whereas horror is extreme irrational fear of the utterly unnatural or the supernatural. Moreover, there is realistic horror – the unnatural or supernatural fright presented in the guise of the normal. Terror is also the dread of the use of systematic violence; horror the dread of something unpredictable, soothing that may have a potential for violence."
In many instances, however, our concept of a favourite horror story comes from a screenplay rather than the original novel, which is a completely different discipline. Many a reader has received a shock when discovering that the novel (often read after a cinema or television success), is a drastic departure from the film version. Characters are merged or omitted altogether; locations are altered; new scenes are invented for dramatic impact; and in a large number of cases, the ending is nothing like the novelist's conclusion to the story. Novels are frequently adapted for films and frequently include material that was not part of the original narrative but a film is a film, and a novel is a novel – each being viewed as separate art forms. So, for the time being we must forget about the film versions and concentrate on writing a novel.
To fully understand the horror novel, would-be novelists in the genre are advised to familiarise themselves with the development of the style from the classic German Gespensterbuch to the contemporary Twilight series, to see what makes the horror novel fan-base tick. The appeal of traditional ghost stories is probably as old as the first time humans gathered together around a fire to listen to tales of long-dead ancestors. The flickering shadows on the walls, the enveloping darkness outside, and the sounds of predatory night creatures would have all added to the atmosphere. A log falling unexpectedly from the flames in a shower of sparks would have sent shivers of fear along the spines of the listeners as they hung on every word ...
... moving down through the ages we come to the famous collection of ghost stories from the Villa Diadoti that inspired the creators of the modern genre. Everyone is familiar with the history:
The season was cold and rainy, and in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands. These tales excited in us a playful desire of imitation. Two other friends ... and myself agreed to write a story, founded on some supernatural occurrence ...
So recorded Percy Shelley in the 'anonymous' preface to the first edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in 1818. Mary herself recalled the same collection when she came to write a preface for the revised edition of her novel and although the stories made "so powerful an impression on Mary Shelley that she could recall incidents which occurred in them fifteen years later, no-one has until now thought fit to reprint either the French or the English editions," observed Dr Terry Hale of the Performance Translation Centre at the University of Hull, in the 1992 translation published by the Gothic Society.
The original German collection, Gespensterbuch, first saw the light of day between 1811 and 1815, with the French version, Fantasmagoriana published in 1812; and an English version, Tales of the Dead, appearing the following year. These German 'shudder' stories had a tremendous influence on the development of the English Gothic literary genre and according to Dr Hale, "frequently employed traditional folk-motifs coupled with increasingly sophisticated narrative techniques". A technique that is still highly identifiable in the genre in the twentieth century – but from that 'wet, ungenial summer' also sprung the independent trains of thought that gave the world two of its most terrifying Gothic creations – Dr Frankenstein's monster and, subsequently, the charismatic vampire, Count Dracula.
The traditional ghost story, however, is usually based on some form of revenge or retribution from beyond the grave, and whereas contemporary writers have moved on from the classical 'moaning in the passages' and 'clanking chains', the narrative must still produce that involuntary 'shudder factor' in the reader. It is a scenario that bridges generations, just as the 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James partly inspired the screenplay for the psychological horror film The Others (2001). It is also the one of the most 'respectable' elements of the horror genre in that ghost stories have graced the pages of the most surprising of mainstream magazines at one time or another, including an edition of Practical Fishkeeping!
By definition, however, a ghost story should be any piece of fiction, ballad or drama, or an account of an experience, that includes a ghost, or simply has all the appearances of a haunting. Wikipedia, for example, tells us: "In a narrower sense, the ghost story has been developed as a short story format, within genre fiction. It is a form of supernatural fiction and specifically of weird fiction, and is often a horror story. While ghost stories are often explicitly meant to be scary, they have been written to serve all sorts of purposes, from comedy to morality tales. Ghosts often appear in the narrative as sentinels or prophets of things to come. Whatever their uses the ghost story is in some format present in all cultures around the world, and may be passed down orally or in written form."
Literary scholar and historian of the ghost story Jack Sullivan, observes that many literary experts claim a 'Golden Age of the Ghost Story' existed between the decline of the Gothic novel in the 1830s and the start of the First World War. Sullivan's opinion is that the work of Edgar Allan Poe and Sheridan Le Fanu ushered in the 'Golden Age' – but fails to acknowledge Arthur Machen's contribution to the genre, especially his ghostly tale of The Bowmen, that actually inspired the WWI legend of the Angels of Mons. Sullivan is one of the leading modern figures in the study of the horror genre, particularly the ghost story, and probably his most important contribution to the historical study of the genre to date has been the mammoth The Penguin Encyclopaedia of Horror and the Supernatural, which should be on every horror writer's bookshelf.
Nevertheless every location on earth has its ghost story to tell, its haunted house, local superstition or folklore that can be drawn upon to enrich a fictional tale, from Shakespeare's Hamlet (1603), to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) – which was listed on the BBC's 'The Big Read' poll as the 'UK's best-loved novel' – and The Amityville Horror, an American best-selling novel (1977) by Jay Anson. On a more personal and factual front, Passenham Manor in Buckinghamshire has its own 'Bobby' Bannister whose memory is preserved as 'an oppressive tyrant whose ghost still lingers on,' (Passenham: A History of a Forest Village), having broken his neck in the hunting field and the horse dragging his mangled body home.
Perhaps the longest running ghost story theme, using the idea of ancestral haunting, is the animated portrait ... first introduced in The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole in 1764. Generally regarded as the first Gothic novel and a major literary influence for Charles Maturin, Ann Radcliffe, Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe, the author uses the device of "the portrait of his grandfather which hung over the bench where they had been sitting uttered a deep sigh and heaved its breast ..." thus preventing a ravishment that while not incestuous was certainly on the borderland of consanguinity.
As Terry Hale observes: "Animated portraits became a familiar stock-in-trade of the Gothic novel throughout the 1790s. Maturin was responsible for the most artistically successful use of the motif in his Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). When Melmoth burns the painting of his ancestor as demanded by his uncle's will, 'its undulations gave the portrait the appearance of smiling' as the wrinkled and torn canvas fell to the ground ... this motif would re-emerge seventy years later in Wilde's Dorian Gray ..." While 'The Family Portraits' in Tales of the Dead bears a marked similarity to one of those related by Mathew Gregory Lewis – the author of The Monk – when he visited Lord Byron's house party at the Villa Diodoti in August 1816, and which was jotted down by Percy Shelley in the diary he shared with his sister.
The acknowledged master of the ghost story, however, is still M R James, English medieval scholar and provost of King's College, Cambridge and Eton. James drew on his own antiquarian interests to flesh out his protagonists and plots, and redefined the ghost story for the twentieth century by abandoning many of the formal Gothic clichés of his predecessors by using more realistic contemporary settings. The narrative usually included three main ingredients:
an atmospheric village, seaside town or country estate; an ancient town, abbey or university;
a rather vague and naive academic as protagonist;
the discovery of a book or antiquarian object that summons up, calls down, or attracts the unwelcome attention of a supernatural agency, usually from beyond the grave.
He added this advice for would-be 'ghost' writers: "Another requisite, in my opinion, is that the ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story." And: "Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo ... Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage."
The scholarly narrative should not for one moment suggest that James's writing is too bland for the palette of today's horror genre. Many of his tales depict scenes and images of savage and often disturbing violence: for example, in Lost Hearts, adolescent children fall victim to a sinister dabbler in the occult who cuts their hearts from their still-living bodies! He wrote: "Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, 'the stony grin of unearthly malice', pursuing forms in darkness, and 'long-drawn, distant screams', are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded; the weltering and wallowing that I too often encounter merely recall the methods of M G Lewis ['Monk' Lewis]."
In addition to writing his own stories, James championed the works of Sheridan Le Fanu, whom he viewed as "absolutely in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories", editing and supplying introductions to Madame Crowl's Ghost (1923) and Uncle Silas (1926).
The contemporary 'ghost' story involves the manifestation of the 'undead' interacting with the physical world as opposed to the vampire, who retains a parasitic dependency on its human victims. When writing my own horror novel, Whittlewood, the 'undead' protagonist was a Celtic shaman who had returned to avenge the defilement of an ancient burial site. He had no physical form but his magical abilities had been so powerful in life that he was capable of producing a simulacrum, or 'thought form' to do his bidding almost 2000 years after his death.
Haunted houses, however, have provided the contemporary horror writer – and the film companies – with licence for the most amazing visual and special effects. The prerequisite for success is an abandoned mansion set in a remote location, with some disgruntled ghost that vents its psychic spleen on some unsuspecting family, who usually have no responsibility for the reasons behind the disturbances. The most famous novel in this genre is The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959) – finalist for the National Book Award and considered one of the best literary ghost stories published during the twentieth century, which has been made into two feature films and a play. "Jackson relies on terror rather than horror to elicit emotion by the reader, utilizing complex relationships between the mysterious events in the house and the characters' psyches."
By comparison, Hell House (1971) by American novelist Richard Matheson, relies on pure horror and although the novel has marked similarities to Jackson's, the narrative is shot through with much more violence and sexual imagery. Stephen King's The Shining (1977) used the setting of a remote, out-of-season hotel and established him as the pre-eminent author in the horror genre. A film based upon the book, directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Jack Nicholson, was released in 1980, and later adapted into a TV mini-series in 1997.
Another literary element of the 'undead' (and often in conjunction with the haunted house scenario) is the result of a long-forgotten curse or psychic infestation that often involves small children, often themselves the grisly perpetrators of unspeakable horror. This device is also employed in historical horror fiction since history is littered with ancient curses; or a contemporary story with its roots in the dim and distant past.
Anyone contemplating writing horror stories can gain an immeasurable wealth of knowledge concerning techniques and narrative style from these acknowledged 'greats' in the genre. We may decide to try our hand at short stories in the M R James mould; or we may prefer to embark straightaway on the novel – but whichever way we decide to go, there are still the preliminaries of learning how to pace the injections of horror into the narrative to create the best effect on the reader.
Without a doubt, the technique and narrative style of Tales of the Dead and In A Glass Darkly do appear extremely dated by today's literary standards but as with all aspects of creative writing, it is always a good idea to have a thorough grounding in the development of the genre before committing our own words to paper – and to be constantly aware that we are still looking to create that extreme irrational fear of the utterly unnatural or the supernatural in our writing.
Ideas and Inspiration
Ghost stories come from all over the globe, so we are not restricted to home-grown hauntings. We can, in fact, utilise almost any supernatural presence in any location, providing that we've done our homework and can give a fairly credible account of the antecedents of the ritual, artefact, text, etc., that has unleashed your 'horror' into the world. In other words, there has to be someone among the dramatis personae capable of identifying and dealing with the problem convincingly. Bram Stoker's The Jewel of the Seven Stars is an excellent, classic example. Perhaps we should also bear in mind M R James's observation that 'ghosts' in horror stories should be "malevolent or odious" as opposed to the "amiable and helpful apparitions" of fairy tales is still applicable to modern writing.
For the first exercise we turn to Krystina Kellingley, publisher of Cosmic Egg, a John Hunt Publishing imprint that specialises in science fiction, fantasy and horror novels. This extract first appeared on the Cosmic Egg blog as a guide for potential horror writers:
The first thing to do is to think about what kinds of horror novels you like reading. Having done that the next question is to ask yourself: why? What is it about these particular novels that stand out against others that you didn't enjoy quite as much?
Now sit down and make a list. Was it the plot? If you answered yes to this then now is the time to break it down more fully for yourself. Which elements of the plot had you particularly gripped? What else made you keep on reading and held your rapt attention? Were the characters believable? Did you care about them and what happened to them? Was there lots of tension to keep you turning pages? Perhaps there was also a burgeoning romance with lots of conflict thrown in for good measure? Was the pacing tight? The dialogue snappy? Did you, the reader, know something that the characters weren't yet aware of? What didn't you like?
Lots of questions here but all equally valid if you want to understand exactly what kind of horror novel you want to write. Analysing the influence of your favourites, may help you to avoid running out of steam half way through, or the mistake of cross-threading the structure of the plot without realising it. (see Chapter Five: Chimera)
Excerpted from Compass Points Horror upon Horror by Suzanne Ruthven. Copyright © 2013 Suzanne Ruthven. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Chapter One: Tales of the Dead.................... 1
Chapter Two: The Gothic Horror Show.................... 11
Chapter Three: The Vampyre.................... 21
Chapter Four: Fakelore and Fantasy.................... 30
Chapter Five: Chimera.................... 45
Chapter Six: The Twilight World.................... 57
Chapter Seven: Nature's Own.................... 67
Cosmic Egg publisher's interview.................... 79