For horror authors, the definition of fear and how to invoke it is the most important question to answer. I’ve had the privilege of reading the slush pile for Gallows Hill Magazine, and in the course of doing so I’ve read some truly fantastic and powerful stories that have stayed in my mind long after finishing them. I’ve been reflecting upon what made these particular stories stand out from the rest. There was no particular theme running through them, but the one thing they did have in common was the author’s ability to understand precisely how to play on the reader’s instinctive fears.
In my opinion, the greatest horror is psychological. Gore certainly has its place in the genre, but for me, the most successful horror is that which has the ability to sink its tendrils into the reader’s mind and captivate them entirely. To do that, the author has to comprehend the concept of human fear. We all have phobias, some stranger than others – mine is cotton wool – but tapping into a universal fear across that spectrum is incredibly difficult. You might write a spine tingling piece about spiders, but for someone who isn’t afraid of them in the least, however well your story is crafted, it won’t hit the spot. To hook as many readers as possible, you have to appeal to humanity’s base instincts.
We’re complex individuals, but as a species we have the same instincts for self-preservation. That instinct has developed a variety of hard-coded fears that are hard to shake even when we become rational adults with a harder skin than the child we once were, peering tentatively under the bed for fear of what might lurk there unseen. It’s those seemingly simple fears that can lift a well-written piece of horror into something truly fantastic; the monster in the shadows, the menacing stranger, confined spaces, deprivation of senses, contagion…the list goes on, opening up endless possibilities for the imaginative horror author to weave these fears throughout their stories and speak to the reader’s innermost fears.
Of course, there’s far more that goes into creating the ultimate horror story, and I won’t pretend to be an expert – far from it. But I do have a few more tips to share from an editing perspective, and I’ll be doing so over the coming weeks.