Not my confessions, these are the well chosen words of a friend of mine, Will Macmillan Jones.
I have a vice. I’m going to confess to it, here. Openly, and with only the merest flicker of shame to season the pot. I know I have your attention now! But fear not, I have no intention of wearing one of Jim’s hairy shirts (they probably wouldn’t fit anyway) or falling on the floor and beating my breast, wailing wildly or flagellating myself. Not least because my tastes do not run in those directions, and therefore nor does my secret vice. Here goes.
I enjoy scaring people.
There, I’ve said it. Now, before any reader contacts the authorities, I do not jump out from behind bushes or shout at random strangers in the street. I use a pen and, more often, a laptop. That is because I like writing stories – either short stories, or novels – that are intended to be frightening. Yes, I’m a horror writer. Or rather, for I prefer the term and since I have sequestered Jim’s Blog for a day I get to choose, a writer of paranormal mystery stories.
Now, it is commonly said by the people who commonly say such things, that an author should both ‘write what they know’ and ‘understand their readership’. For me, this presents a small problem. Firstly, not being dead yet, I have no personal experience of the paranormal from the side that counts – the Other Side. Yes, like many people, I have had strange experiences that I’m not going to recount here. If you want to know a little more about those, go and buy The Showing (my first paranormal book) which is based upon many of them. But for the rest of the books, let’s just say that they are works from my imagination, from my dark dreams, and move on to the real point of this piece – the second issue.
I am curious about what scares readers. Well, more than curious – I am avid to know what readers find scary, so that I can use, misuse, and abuse the information to increase the feeling of insidious dread I want to seep from my text.
My eldest daughter finds no film worth watching unless it contains scenes of multiple body parts, preferably sliding down the screen accompanied by the scream of a blood splattered chainsaw. Personally, that does nothing for me, but it floats her boat. I would hope that she is experiencing a delightful frisson of terror rather than some sort of avatistic blood lust, but one never really knows, I suppose.
So that is one cause of fear. Blood. Either ours, or other people’s. My partner can be very squeamish about seeing blood or wounds on a TV screen, and I wonder why. She isn’t scared of blood per se, so is it the act of releasing blood from the flesh that imprisons it that scares her? Very popular in Fantasy novels at this time is the sub-genre called Grimdark. This pretty much does what it says on the tin; the books are dark or dismal in tone, largely without glowing heroic characters, and noteworthy for the gleeful enthusiasm and extreme detail with which murders, mutilations, and killings are carried out.
Here then is a second cause of fear. Pain. Largely other people’s, of course, but inflicted in a way that allows us to transfer the pain into our own memories and experiences. I am told that some people positively enjoy being hurt to some degree or other, again this isn’t my taste so my information on that is pretty much second hand. The only self inflicted pain I can recall was taking my children to see some awful boy band or other whose name I have forgotten, and that probably doesn’t count.
Death. An oldy but a goody. Most of us seem to be afraid of death, or perhaps the process of dying. A long, dreamless sleep, as Socrates said before drinking the hemlock, is nothing to be sneezed at – but the bit in between holds countless possibilities for terror. How, and which of its most dreadful guises, will Death sneak up upon us? In a horror novel, Death is ever present as a possibility. For minor characters in a novel of course, it is probably their only raison d’etre and therefore a certainty. Lucky them. But does the terror of death in a novel rise from the actual demise of the character or the manner in which that demise is effected?
My main focus in a novel is on creating threat. Risk. Insecurity. A constant oozing dread, as one reader said. (Unashamedly over the top, said another, but let that pass by for now along with the Amazon Review that said the buyer had been unwell and hadn’t opened the book. I can only assume that they were terrified adequately by the cover, or possibly the picture of me.) I try to keep the reader off balance and aware of a continuous possibility of imminent harm to characters by something unrevealed, yet ever present.
Which brings us to the author’s last trick. The unknown. I rate this as the most fearful cause of all terrors – the fear of the unknown. The noise outside the room, the drifting shadow across the wall, a scratching at the window, the howl of the wind in the eaves revealing the approach of… exactly what? Let the reader’s imagination do the work, bring their darkest fears to the cusp of sight or hearing, and a horror author can relax and let the dear reader do all the work for them. (I am congenitally lazy, after all.)
What frightens you in a novel? What gives you that delicious frisson of terror, that may – just may – drift away when you close the pages? And yet return when the storm rattles your windows with rain, and the wind howls softly around the eaves of your roof, and faint noises in the loft are – what, exactly? I’d love to know.
Jim joining in at this point. It’s a really interesting question. What does give people that frisson of terror?
I’ve been the games-master in roleplaying games and there I discovered that one way to really ‘shock’ people was to drop the terror in immediately after a period of mirth and hilarity. Or to have a build up to fear, then suddenly have it collapse into hilarity when the players realised that they’d totally misread the clues, and just as they’re relaxing and patting each other on the back, have the source of the fear suddenly appear stark and terrifying in their midst.
It’s a really tricky thing to pull off, but remarkably effective when you do. But how do we do it in a book?
Will’s latest release is Demon’s Reach, the fifth in the Mister Jones Mysteries collection of paranormal mysteries.
Obviously you’ll want to know a bit about Will’s book.
All families have secrets or skeletons in the cupboard, hidden away from view. Most of those secrets are better left undisturbed, for very good reasons. When Mister Jones agrees to deal with the Estate of a recently deceased cousin, he finds that the secrets hidden by his family are very dark indeed, and that the skeletons in this cupboard are very real – and not yet entirely dead.
Drawn once more by Fate into a world where magic and myth are all too real and danger lurks at every turn, Mister Jones confronts a past that seeks again to become the present, and to plunge his future into a rising Darkness.
Can he escape the Demon’s Reach?
When Mister Jones discovers that he has been asked to be executor of the Estate of a cousin he wasn’t aware he had, he thinks that the request is innocent, a family matter. But when he travels to his late cousin’s home, he finds that the local village is a dark place, full of mistrust of his family and with unsettling whispers of a dark past.
Indeed, his arrival is enough to spark of an attempt by the villagers to destroy part of his late cousin’s home – and the first death. The mystery deepens as another lost relative finds Mister Jones – but is she all that she seems?
His first visit to his late cousin’s house is almost his last, for Mister Jones finds first evidence of Black Magical Rituals among the effects in the house, and then discovers that a Demon still walks the grounds. The Demon makes herself known to more than just Mister Jones, and the body count rises. Joined by another relative stranger who reveals that she is his half sister, Mister Jones struggles to unravel the web of deceit and mystery and uncover the truth – only to discover that his half sister is more involved than he believed and that the plot centers around his presence, there in the house. He is to be a sacrificial victim, in a Ritual that will restore his long-lost father to life – at the expense of Mister Jones’.
Can Mister Jones’ half sister bring herself to sacrifice the brother she doesn’t know, for the father she fears?
And for real terror, here’s a picture of the man himself!