I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the root of all Horror fiction is Lovecraft’s theory of fearing the unknown. If you were to take a chisel and whittle away at any piece of Horror, you’d find that all you’re left with is mankind’s deepest, darkest fear; death. This could even include the metaphorical death of sanity, like, for example, the struggles of a split personality that John Dykstra faces in Stephen King’s ‘Rest Stop’ (2008). Our innate fear of death is what Horror writers manipulate, in various styles and forms, in order to send that familiar shiver down their readers’ spines.
The success of a Horror writer, however, is somewhat dependent on the reader. A writer can’t assume that every reader will squirm at body-horror, or thrill when a vampire pounces on its prey. Stephen King said that his writing approach therefore involves three levels, with ‘terror on top, horror below it, and lowest of all, the gag reflex of revulsion.’ He uses these varying degrees to prise an emotional response from his readers.
The lowest level is what King calls ‘the gross-out’, which he describes as ‘when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm.’ Yummy. He states that ‘the gross-out can be done to varying degrees of artistic finesse, but it’s always there,’ as it is an accepted trait of the Horror genre. An example of his use of ‘the gross-out’ is short story ‘The Gingerbread Girl’ (2007), when Emily brings a kitchen knife down on her pursuers hand and saws ‘deep into the flesh’, watching the blood pour, or when said pursuer has her by the ankle and she feels his ‘teeth [sink] gum-deep into her heel.’ Michael A. Arnzen’s 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories (2004) is also packed full of gross-out descriptions, mainly because his pieces of flash-fiction are simply too short to be able to add the status quo and characterisation needed to build terrifying tension.
The next level, ‘the horror’, involves unnatural concepts such as the phenomena of vampires, the living dead, or gargling monsters that are ready to eat your brains. King’s description is ‘when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm’; the popular concept of ‘the horror’ is therefore a thing, a form in front of you that defies rationalization, like the rotting corpse that emerges from the bathtub in The Shining (1977).
The top level of ‘the terror’, on the other hand, is when the true fear kicks in. King says that he recognises ‘terror as the finest emotion’, and so ‘will try to terrorize the reader,’ his example being ‘when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…’ The terror element is not necessarily physical, like a gross-out bucket of blood and guts is. It’s psychological and can be as simple as the repetitive thump of a heartbeat in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart (1843). An example of terror perfectly executed to manipulate a reader’s emotions is Philip Pullman’s ‘Video Nasty’ (2007); there are no elements of ‘gross-out’, no truly horrifying moments, but the rising tension of the story as we follow the three boys means that once the action kicks off, it’s the fear bubbling within them that twangs a nerve, rather than the spectral ending. I found myself aching alongside David as he curled up in fear, ‘holding his fists in front of his mouth.’
King says ‘if I find I cannot terrify [the reader], I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.’ At least one of these layers is sure to evoke a response from any reader; if they’re unfazed by the howling ghost, perhaps it’s the severed body that’ll do it, and King’s awareness of this more than proves his talents (if his net worth of $400 million isn’t already enough). These talents have then taught me, as a writer, the importance of terror and how to successfully get under a reader’s skin.
And if that fails, I’ll take a knife and get under my character’s skin. Gross.
Word count: 699.