Why read dark fiction?

A couple of weeks ago, I looked at some of the things that makes a scary story. Today, I want to explore the appeal of horror and dark fiction.

fantasy-2847724_640Horror is a strange genre. It used to be a sub-genre of ‘speculative fiction’, along with fantasy and science-fiction, and writers like Lovecraft blended all three. But now, it doesn’t quite fit. Where some science fiction is considered serious and literary, horror is more likely to be thought of as ‘nasty stories’. Where fantasy creates whole new worlds, horror is (generally) stuck in the real world, with a few supernatural elements thrown in‌—‌and ghosts aren’t in the same league as dragons and elves.

Science fiction and fantasy sell far more, and have a larger fan-base. Horror has been left behind.

Yet there are many important horror works, like Frankenstein and Dracula. Stephen King is considered a horror author, and he is one of the most popular writers around. The genre has in part been responsible for influential TV shows, like X-Files, Buffy and The Twilight Zone (and even Doctor Who uses monsters and other horror tropes). There are shades of horror in literary books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Some of the best-known sci-fi franchises have their roots in horror, like Alien. Without horror, the whole urban fantasy and paranormal romance genres (think Twilight) would not exist, and those stories continue to draw in many readers.

Then there are the ghost stories, and the monsters that everyone knows about‌—‌vampires, zombies, werewolves. There are ghost trains at the funfair. There are the costumes at Halloween.

For a derided genre, horror is incredibly influential.

So what is the appeal? Why do we enjoy stories that terrify us?

cliff-1209263_640I used to work at outdoor activity centres, and as part of this I would take people abseiling. Grabbing hold of a rope and leaning over a drop isn’t a natural thing to do, and many people would (quite sensibly) be scared. They’d be shaking. They’d need coaxing over the edge. Despite all the assurances that it was perfectly safe, they’d imagine the worst.

But they’d do it anyway. They might be swearing under their breath the whole way down, and they might need another instructor by their sides, encouraging them for each tiny step, but they’d reach the bottom. And then, legs shaking and heart hammering, they’d smile.

They’d done it. They’d conquered their fears and survived. They’d pushed themselves through their terror, and they’d overcome. Even if they never abseiled again, they could be proud of what they had achieved. Often, they would give it another go. Or they’d remember how they overcame their nerves, and push themselves a little further on the next activity.

Maybe you’re starting to see where I’m going with this.

For most of us, our lives are comfortable. We wake up, we go to work or do whatever else fills our day, we move around freely, we relax in safety at home, and then we go to sleep.
The news warns us of the dangers out there‌—‌the murderers, the rapists, the paedophiles. It brings us images of natural disasters, and of atrocities brought about by others. Yet most of us will not encounter any of this in reality. It is news because it is rare. If it were commonplace, it would not be reported with anything like the same intensity.

So we are safe.

Yet there is a part of us that thrives on adrenaline. Sometimes, conflict is good. We need that risk, and we need to push ourselves. Sometimes, we need to grab that rope and dangle a hundred feet from the ground.

It is often said that, when times are bad, people look to feel-good escapism in their entertainment, and when times are good darker fiction grows in popularity. And this makes sense‌—‌we need both security and tension. Inactivity, physically and mentally (spiritually and emotionally?), is bad for us.

roller-coaster-654081_640It explains why roller-coasters are popular. We know they are safe (again, the accidents are reported because they are anomalies), but they give the illusion of danger. Hurtling around a twisting track, being thrown upside-down, with the screams of others in our ears, gives us an adrenaline rush. And afterwards, we can smile and laugh about it, because we’ve survived.

Thrillers are often described as ‘roller-coaster reads’, because they take us on a thrilling journey, with twists and turns that toss us about unexpectedly. And horror does something similar.

In any fiction, there has to be tension. The higher the stakes, the greater this tension, and the more we are drawn into the story. We fear for the hero, knowing that they face something terrifying. In thrillers, this is death‌—‌from the villain’s gun, or the bomb the hero is racing to diffuse, or from the trap they have found themselves in. But in horror, it is damnation. In horror, death is not the worst that can happen.

In vampire legends a bite can turn the victim into one of the undead, cursed for all eternity. Ghosts come back from beyond the grave, and threaten to take us to places we can hardly imagine. In apocalyptic horror, like McCarthy’s The Road, those who have died are the lucky ones, escaping the hell that the survivors must endure. In Thomas Harris’ Silence Of The Lambs, Hannibal is not scary because he kills, but because of how he desecrates his victims bodies. In King’s The Shining, Jack Torrence becomes a monster, no longer himself, and turns on his own family.

This is the stuff of nightmares. Life and death are constants, but damnation, and the torture of the soul‌—‌that is terrifying.

Like the person queueing for the roller-coaster ride, or the person putting on their harness at the top of the cliff, a part of us is drawn to the terror. As much as it disturbs us, we want to know what is out there. It’s like an itch that won’t go away.

Horror stories allow us to scratch that itch. They allows us to confront dark forces. As much as logic might tell us that monsters and supernatural forces don’t exist, there’s always that ‘but what if…’, and dark fiction gives us possible answers to that. It lets us in on a world that makes the unreal real, and unleashes our nightmares.

But in a controlled manner. Just as we trust the designers and operators of the roller-coaster, or the person belaying the rope at the top of the cliff, so we trust the storyteller to bring us through to the end. Whatever happens along the way, we will survive. And then we can walk away, our need for adrenaline satisfied, and our fears conquered. We can emerge from the darkness to look around and appreciate all the good things we have in our lives.

This is another huge appeal of horror, even if it is subconscious‌—‌there is an end. No matter how bad things get, there is always a way through. Even though there may be (are?) things out there we cannot understand or even comprehend, we are survivors. Despite (or because of) the darkness, there is always hope. Good will triumph over evil. The vampire will be slain. The monster will be defeated. The night will end. There is always a new dawn.

And, when there is so much going on in the world over which we have no control, that has to be a comfort.

 

Shadowfall is free (for a limited period)

Shadowfall_smallI’m currently running a free promotion on Shadowfall (Shadows Book One), so if you want a scary sci-fi book for Halloween, give it a try.

This promotion runs through the weekend, after which the book will revert to its usual price (although Kindle Unlimited subscribers will still be able to read it for free).

Click here or on the cover image to download Shadowfall. And if you want more, join my list to get the exclusive prequel novella Shadowlair.

What makes a scary story work?

graveyard-384604_1280Summer is over. Nights are stretching out, and days are growing colder. Leaves are falling from the trees.

It’s the time of year for Halloween stories.

But what makes a story scary? What is it in these tales that makes us shudder or gasp? How do scary stories work?

Trying to answer those questions in a thousand words or so is impossible, but I have a few general thoughts on this. I’m going to focus on a couple of films, but this all applies to books as well‌—‌I’ve kept these thoughts close while writing my own sci-fi/horror series. The films I’m going to mention most are Alien and An American Werewolf In London, and there will be spoilers below.

Normality

Scary stories are usually fairly extreme‌—‌undead creatures, different realities, powers that run counter to how physics tells us the world works. For this to have an impact, there needs to be something we can relate to. Horror is always worse when it is played out against an everyday backdrop. The creepy haunted house can work, but only if there is some kind or normality about it. Take Stephen King’s The Shining‌—‌the setting might be a large, seemingly empty old building cut off from the rest of the world, but it’s also a hotel, where people go to relax and enjoy themselves.

But the more mundane the setting, the greater the impact of the horror elements. The Exorcist is set in a normal house, with a single-parent family. In Poltergeist and Ring, TVs play an important part. Then there are the stories where dolls come to life and cause havoc, like Chucky in Child’s Play.

Why does this work well? Because we’re used to the normal stuff. We’ve probably all had good times in a hotel. Many of us live in regular houses. We watch TV. Our children have dolls and other toys. And in a scary story, these normal settings and objects take on new, frightening aspects.

AmericanWerewolfIn American Werewolf, we start on the Yorkshire Moors (slightly creepy because it’s night-time, but still relatively ‘normal’), and then go to London. It is relatively easy to imagine a monster stalking a dark, misty moorland, but surely not in a modern city.

Even a space-ship can seen normal. In Alien, there are no shiny control panels, and things look used. The crew are workers, and we can relate to them‌—‌yes, they might be in outer space, but they’re just doing a job. They’re just like us.

That familiarity helps us relate to what is happening in the story, but it also forces us to see our own surroundings in a new light. When a werewolf is staking people in a city, we start to wonder what that noise coming from outside might be. When toys come to life with murderous intent, those glassy eyes in the bedrooms of our children send a shudder down our spine.

Imagination is scarier than reality

Scary stories work best when things are left to the imagination. When all we are presented with is shadows, and maybe some kind of noise, our minds fill in the blanks — and our minds know just what terrifies us.

In Alien we don’t see the complete monster until the very end of the film. We see parts of it, in shadows. We see what it leaves behind. We see some of the characters’ reactions to it. But we don’t come face to face with it for a long time.

That’s one of the reasons the sequels don’t work as horror films‌—‌we see too much of the aliens. By the time we get to Alien Resurrection, and have two xenomorphs swimming effortlessly towards the camera, we know what to expect, and there is nothing like the same sense of dread.

Jaws works the same way (and that film borrows heavily from the horror genre). We never see any part of the shark until the second half of the film, and even then only see the whole thing near the end.

In both cases (Jaws and Alien), some of this was down to practicalities in the film-making process — there were not the resources to effectively show the whole monster. But the film-makers used this limitation to their advantage. Rather than try to show us everything, they left it up to us to create our own monster.

TheGrudgeThis is a classic case of ‘less is more’, and I’d like to give another example. In the original version of The Grudge, there is a scene with the main character having a shower, and a hand appears, rubbing her hair. There is no indication where this hand comes from — it’s suddenly there, touching her. She’s in the shower (an enclosed space) and she’s naked (and vulnerable), and suddenly there’s something else in there with her.

This scene doesn’t work as well in the American remake. Here, we get to see the hand growing from the back of the main character’s neck before it touches her head. This is grotesque, but it’s not nearly as scary as the original‌—‌precisely because what we don’t know can be worse than what we see.

Those who tell good scary stories understand that less is more, and that when our imagination is left to fill in the blanks, it taps into our own fears to conjure up something personally terrifying.

Anticipation is vital

Something jumping out and going ‘boo’ might make us jump, but that fright is gone as quickly as it appears. For longer-lasting terror, there has to be a build-up. There have to be small clues that tell us ‘something’s not right’. The dread must creep up on us, like dark mist, until we suddenly realise that we are being smothered.

The Monkey’s Paw is a great example of this. (Again, there’s going to be spoilers. If you haven’t read this story, it’s in the public domain, so you should be able to get hold of a copy for free. Check out Project Gutenberg.) The monkey’s paw grants wishes, and at first that seems like a good thing. But the old saying ‘be careful what you wish for’ holds true here. The couple who find the paw wish for money, and it duly arrives‌—‌as compensation for the death of their son in a workplace accident.

This is the set-up. We learn that wishes come at a price.

The mother wants her son back. The father had to identify the body, so he knows just what the accident did to their son. He tries to stop his wife, but she grabs the paw and makes her wish.

There’s a knock at the door. The mother races down the stairs, and struggles to free the latch. Meanwhile, the father is scrambling around, dreading what will happen when his wife sees the abomination at the door. She’s thrown the monkey’s paw down somewhere, and he has to find it. He needs to stop what’s about to happen.

We never get a description of the son, but that doesn’t matter. We can imagine it (again, the power of imagination), but what gets our hearts pumping is the race between the mother and the father, and the fear of what will happen when she opens the door.

It is the anticipation that drives the horror.

AmericanWerewolfSceneI’ll give another example, from one of the most memorable sequences in American Werewolf. We see a commuter stepping off a tube train. The train disappears into the tunnel, leaving him alone on a platform. He hears a noise, but he thinks nothing of it, and he carries on his way. The noise repeats, and he calls out, telling whoever it is that he doesn’t find this funny in the slightest. But there is definitely something around. He starts to get nervous. He walks faster, and then he starts to run.

We do see the werewolf, briefly, but by that time the commuter has collapsed on an escalator. The werewolf appears at the bottom, and starts to climb. We cut back to see the commuter, as he watches this thing approach, and the terror grows on his face.

I can’t remember if we see the attack. But I can remember the build-up, because that is the scary part.

The false ending

This occurs in thrillers a lot, but works very well in horror too. It’s usually the moment where everyone in the cinema jumps out of their seats at the same time.

There’s an example part-way through American Werewolf, in a dream sequence. The main character watches his family being slaughtered by monster-soldier things, and when one of them pulls a knife across his throat he wakes up with a jerk. He’s in his hospital bed, with a nurse watching over him. It was only a dream. The nurse, seeing he’s awake, goes to open the curtains.

And as she reached the window, one of the monsters leaps out and stabs her in the chest.

It’s a shock because we never for a moment suspect that he’s still dreaming.

Alien_posterAlien saves the false ending for the final moments of the film. Ripley sets the Nostromo to self-destruct, then races to reach the escape pod (after finding the ship’s cat, of course). There are sirens blaring, and lights flashing, and the alien is somewhere on the ship. It’s a great sequence, and when she finally seals herself into the escape pod and ejects, and the Nostromo explodes, we feel her relief.

And then something moves in the shadows. She has not destroyed the alien. It is in the escape pod with her.

False endings are often the most memorable parts of stories. We already have the build-up of adrenaline in the tension-filled scene before, and then we have that fake release, followed by the sudden shock that makes our hearts leap.

It’s the perfect scare.

So there you have a few reasons scary stories work. Of course there are more (like the fate worse than death, and the corruption of innocence), and I’m interested on your thoughts on this. What gets your heart racing in a story? What makes you jump out of your skin in a book or a film?

 

Why re-read?

book-1975830_640Some people never read a book more than once, arguing that there is no enjoyment if they already know the ending. Others have their favourite books that they return to time and time again. Some people read Lord Of The Rings every year. I’ve met someone who appeared to be reading Fifty Shades constantly (must be some S&M thing).

I have a long list of new books to read, but I still find myself re-reading older ones. So why?

I think there are three possible reasons.

Familiarity and comfort

HitchHikers_DouglasAdamsI’ve read Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy so often that now I only have to look at the page and the words flow from my memory. And every so often, I will binge re-read the Discworld books. I know what’s coming, but I still enjoy the storytelling and the humour. They make me smile, no matter how many times I read them.

We enjoy comfort, and that includes mental comfort. So re-reading a book we know we enjoy can be a settling experience, especially when other aspects of our lives might be going through changes. Familiar books are something steady we can cling to.

Sometimes, it is not so much the book but the memories connected with it. I’ll always associate Tolstoy’s War And Peace and Louis de Bernieres’ Birds Without Wings with caravan holidays, and Asimov’s original Foundation books remind me of my grandparents’ house. And Thomas Hardy, strangely, puts me in a summery mood, simply because I can recall reading some of his books on an old Sony Reader in our garden one summer, when it was warm enough to wear shorts.

Reading familiar books can be like listening to a favourite song or re-watching a favourite film. It’s a break from reality, but one that makes us feel relaxed and comfortable.

Re-assessing

Over time, everyone changes. We grow, we take on new ideas and we reject old ones. We see the world through different eyes, coloured by the experiences of our on-going lives.

ET_WilliamKotzwinkleIt can be interesting revisiting books we enjoyed when we were growing up. Sometimes the books seem too childish, and we wonder if we were ever really taken in by them. Sometimes we are disappointed by the book (as I was when I re-read the original Star Wars novelisation a bit ago). And sometimes we see new things. When I revisited ET recently, there were things I was sure I’d missed before, simply because I’d been too young to understand what William Kotzwinkle was hinting at.

I read a great deal of horror as a teenager, and it’s been interesting re-reading some of my favourites from that time. Some stand up well, like The Shining‌—‌although obviously a story of a family cut off from the rest of the world is going to have a different impact on a father than it does on a teenager. Others were a disappointment, like James Herbert’s The Rats. I can see why I enjoyed this before, but for the adult me it was nothing special (apologies to any Herbert fans, although I did enjoy Ash when I read that a couple of years ago).

I don’t watch many films now, but in the past these have given me the nudge to re-read certain books, and the visuals have enabled me to see the words in a different light. One strong example of this is Fight Club, a rare phenomenon where both book and film are excellent. On re-reading, I could hear Ed Norton’s voice, and it made for a great reading experience.

So re-reading with fresh eyes can alter the perception of a book, for better or for worse.

Digging deeper

At first, this might appear to be the same as revisiting, but there are subtle differences. I’ll revisit a book when I’m not sure what I think of it, or when something triggers a fresh look. But certain books have depths that I know I have not yet mined, and I will re-read them because I want to uncover more of their secrets.

ZenMotorcycleMaintenance_RobertMPirsigZen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance is the most obvious example. This book is a journey into ideas, set against a father-and-son motorcycle ride across America. At times the thoughts and questions it poses are almost too dense, and every time I read it I pick up on something new. Between my first and second readings, I spent a bit of time reading Plato, and this influenced how I understood Prisig’s inquiries into the meaning of quality. Later, the relationship between the father and the son had a greater impact on me, simply because I was able to relate to that situation. And having recently found out that Prisig’s son was murdered some years after the book came out, the next time I read it I am sure that will colour what I take from it.

Yet there are still things to uncover in the ideas in the book. It doesn’t lecture, but guides, and what I bring to the reading is as important as the words itself.

In contrast, I’ll re-read American Psycho because I want to understand how that book works on a technical level. I think it’s a classic. There are so many different ways of interpreting it (comment on consumerism? Study of sociopathy? Discussion on desires?). There’s no clear story, and at times it seems to drift along as random thoughts (two pages on the pros and cons of Huey Lewis and the News, anyone?). But it works, and it’s clear that Bret Easton Ellis knew exactly what he was doing. So I’ll re-read it, paying attention to how he uses words and phrases, and how he structures it.

I suppose this is more of an intellectual enjoyment than an emotional one, but I’m re-reading with the same purpose‌—‌to delve deeper into the book in order to discover more of its secrets.

* * *

So, three reasons why I will re-read a book. There are probably more (like re-reading a book simply because I’ve forgotten that I read it a few years ago), but these will do for the moment. I’m sure there are people who will argue that I am wasting my time‌—‌for all I get out of re-reading, wouldn’t that time be better spent reading one of the thousands of books I have yet to read? They might have a point, but I’m never going to read everything I want to anyway. And I don’t see reading as a tick-list activity. It’s about enjoyment and entertainment, and if I can get that from re-reading, there’s no reason to stop.