According to American author H. P. Lovecraft, a writer “must never state a specific horror element when it can be suggested.” Exactly what does the “Father of Modern Horror” mean by this simple statement? Basically, Lovecraft is pointing out that it is best to leave as much to the reader’s imagination as possible, especially pertaining to the description of events and situations involving an emotional response. However, as William Patrick relates, “what worked for Lovecraft in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury in the 1950’s and Stephen King in the 1970’s and 1980’s does not necessarily work with readers and movie-goers today.” In order to discover what works with horror fans today, Patrick asked thirty-two undergraduates at Moravian College in Pennsylvania two crucial questions—first, “What are the elements that make for a good horror story?” and second, “What ruins a horror story for you personally?”
Patrick was curious as to whether their answers would reveal “a difference between standards that critics have set for contemporary horror versus the personal criteria that readers use” before purchasing a horror novel or attending a horror film. Prior to asking these questions of his students, Patrick examined in detail a list of horror bestsellers from the past which revealed “striking differences between popular taste (or what sells at the bookstores and on-line) and critical taste (or what is praised by the critics).” Patrick’s conclusion was that any horror writer “who adheres to the results of a market survey is bound to write perfunctory and uninspired drivel.”
Patrick adds that the results of this survey of his undergraduate students was quite surprising, especially after reading and discussing more than forty novels and short stories from commercial and independent publishers by such authors as Shirley Jackson The Haunting of Hill House, Richard Matheson, Peter Straub Ghost Story, Dean Koontz and Stephen King. Apparently, all of Patrick’s students agreed that a good horror story requires lots of suspense, a satisfying conclusion, believable characters, vivid settings, good pacing, an adequate amount of gore and the use of suggestiveness in descriptions, rather than a blunt, full force gross-out.
Patrick’s survey showed that “almost one hundred percent of the students listed suspense as the primary ingredient of a good horror story” which indicates that true horror entertainment must contain elements of anticipation, dread and uncertainty, the three key traits of suspense. In addition, Patrick’s students “preferred for this unrelenting suspense to lead to an unexpected, even shocking ending,” one that will leave the reader “scared shitless.” According to Dean Koontz, in order to be read (or viewed), the writer “had better make sure he tells a suspense-packed story that leads to a dynamite ending.”
Also, most of Patrick’s students stressed the importance of strong and believable characters, the “engines of a story’s power.” Koontz acknowledges that “suspense. . . results primarily from the reader’s identification with and concern about the lead characters” which must be complex, convincing as well as appealing. For one student, “a really good horror story occurs when the author is able to make the reader feel for the characters—their pain, fear, happiness and wanting.” A third requirement is that a good horror story “must be anchored solidly in a believable setting” that provides room to explore the natural world and the supernatural and one that “accentuates the grotesque.” In essence, all good horror fiction, particularly that which has been adapted for the screen, requires “a balance between the realistic and the bizarre” and must embrace “the ordinary so that the extraordinary will be heightened.”
The pace of a good horror story is also important, meaning that the action must be level throughout the tale which provides for a fast-paced and suspenseful horror ride. This desire on the part of Patrick’s students may be a sign of the times, for no doubt “much could be made of the shortened attention spans of this generation that has never known life without television.” As to the use and abuse of gore, it is generally accepted that gore is expected to be a major element in today’s horror fiction and films, particularly if they fall within the sub-genre known as “splatterpunk.” Of course, the overall job of the horror writer “has always been to assault social taboos, broadcast unspeakable urges and show the nauseating possibilities that lie within” every human being. However, a thin line separates effective from ineffective gore, for such a thing “must be justified by the story’s content, tone and theme.”
Lastly, all good and effective horror fiction must exhibit the author’s “preference for suggestiveness in description,” also known as “narrative blurring.” As one observant student put it, “Description should be only enough so that the reader can get a picture, but not so much that there’s nothing left for the imagination.” A prime example of this can be found in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Tell-Tale Heart, wherein he describes the dismemberment of a body as such: “First of all, I cut off the head, and the arms, and the legs.
There was no blood spot to wash out. . . I was too wary for that—a tub had caught it all!” Very short yet extremely effective!
In the end, a good horror story must contain all of these elements woven together in such a way that the reader/viewer will come back again and again to be “scared shitless” as one of Patrick’s students related in the survey. One of the best quotes related to horror writing comes from the mind of H.P. Lovecraft who once remarked, “Good horror writers merely collaborate with our minds,” meaning that the writer puts down on paper what is already in the mind of the reader/viewer, a task which at first seems relatively simple.
1 Supernatural Horror in Literature. NY: Dover Press, 1975, 56.
2 Elements of Screenwriting. NY: Phaidon Press, 1990, 214.
3 Ibid, 216.
4 Ibid, 231.
5 Ibid, 256.
6 Ibid, 264.
7 Supernatural Horror in Literature, 157.