Don’t Forget the H

by Tim Waggoner  

The horror genre is undergoing a renaissance these days, with audiences devouring popular and critically acclaimed books, movies, and television series. If you’re a science fiction or fantasy writer who’d like to add more horror to your authorial toolbox, but you’re not quite sure how to go about it, you’re in luck, because that’s what this article is all about.

A lot of people’s views on horror have been shaped by slasher films, simplistic predator-stalks-prey stories with lots of blood and sex. But the genre of horror performs some very important functions for its audience beyond providing simple scares. Horror is a way for us to face our fears and come to terms with death and the “evil” in the world. Through horror, we explore, confront, and (hopefully) make peace with our dark side. And as a particular benefit for writers, horror can add a different level of suspense and emotional involvement for readers in any story.

Good horror is internal more than external. Horror stories are reaction stories. They’re not about monsters or monstrous forces as much as how characters react to monsters (or to becoming monsters themselves). Horror also thrives on fear of the unknown, so you should strive to avoid standard horror tropes such as bloodthirsty vampires or demon-possessed children, or rework them to make them more original and impactful for readers. Maybe your vampire is a creature that feeds on people’s memories, or maybe your possessed child is an android created to be a child’s companion who’s desperately trying to repel a hacker’s efforts to take over its system. Reworking a trope — dressing it in new clothes, so to speak — allows you to reclaim the power of its core archetype while jettisoning the cliched baggage it’s picked up over the years. 

One of the ways current creators are refreshing horror tropes is by using them to make incisive social commentary. In his novel Mongrels, Stephen Graham Jones uses the archetype of the werewolf as a metaphor to explore the lives of Native Americans living in a culture dominated by people of European descent. In the film Get Out, Jordan Peele employs the archetype of the Frankenstein-like mad scientist to comment on white culture’s dehumanization and exploitation of Black people. In his Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, Michael Flanagan’s characters are as haunted by their own past of family dysfunction as they are by the spirits of the dead. And the film Jennifer’s Body, written by Diablo Cody and directed by Karyn Kusama, explores feminist themes through a monster-movie lens.

There are some horror tropes, however, that are based in racist, misogynist, and ableist stereotypes. The primitive non-white savages who conduct unspeakable rites to dark gods. The uncivilized backwoods stalkers, eager to kill educated, sophisticated urbanites (a trope wonderfully parodied in the film Tucker and Dale vs Evil). Women who exist solely as objects of abuse and torture. Physically scarred and disabled characters such as the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Phantom of the Opera. Used as is, these tropes only perpetuate harmful stereotypes, but when turned on their head, they can make extremely effective stories, as in Victor LaValle’s novella The Ballad of Black Tom, which subverts the racism in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and Ari Aster’s film Midsommar, which upends the woman as helpless victim trope.

To create an atmosphere of horror, the simplest technique is to describe the physical setting in a way that makes it scary. But just as effective — if not more so — is detailing the mental and emotional aspects of the setting. Shirley Jackson does both in the famous opening paragraphs of her novel The Haunting of Hill House. You can also present the experience of the setting by filtering the description through a particular character’s point of view. Show your characters experiencing the horror. Stay in the moment. Take a page out of Stephen King’s playbook. I once read an interview where King said he comes up with ideas by looking at an object, person, or place and thinking, Something is wrong here — very wrong. You can do the same thing in your stories, whether the something wrong is literal, figurative, or exists solely in the imagination of your viewpoint character. Describing the rising of two moons in the sky of a distant planet? Maybe the moons are normally a pale orange, but for some reason, they’re now almost bloodred. Does your character hear what sounds like whispering on the wind in a language she doesn’t recognize?

In horror, the characters are often under the threat of physical violence, injury, and ultimately death. But the mental, emotional, and spiritual wounds characters suffer can be far worse than physical pain. In King’s Salem’s Lot, Father Callahan’s faith falters during his confrontation with the master vampire Barlow, and Barlow forces the priest to drink some of his unholy blood. Later, when Callahan attempts to enter his church, he receives a painful shock of divine energy. He is now barred from the house of his god. The physical pain Callahan experiences is nothing compared to the emotional and spiritual pain — the horror — of realizing what his lack of faith has cost him. And in the movie Poltergeist, the parents’ terror upon being confronted with the ghostly entities haunting their house pales beside the knowledge that their youngest daughter has become trapped within the spirits’ dimension. The parents aren’t afraid for themselves. They’re afraid for Carol Anne and what might be happening to her on the Other Side.

Whether you use horror as the main course, a side dish, or a little seasoning now and then, it’s a versatile ingredient that has quite a kick, and — when used right — can be highly satisfying for readers. So don’t be afraid to get a little scary now and then.

Critically-acclaimed author Tim Waggoner has published over fifty novels and seven collections of short stories. He writes original dark fantasy and horror, as well as media tie-ins, and he’s recently released a book on writing horror fiction called Writing in the Dark. He’s won the Bram Stoker Award and been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award, the Scribe Award, and the Splatterpunk Award. He’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. 

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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