Bleak As You Like It

It is mid-October.  The dead are quiet on their hill, beneath the autumn leaves.  The cemetery is old, some of the lichen-mottled stones showing dates from the early 1800’s.  The rusted gate has slumped from its hinges.  The fence that once marked the boundary lies half-buried in the loam, and nothing keeps out the forest.  Nothing keeps in the dead.  This is a between place, where anything can happen…

What a great setting for a chilling tale of terror, a good old-fashioned ghost story!  Atmospheric, almost cinematic in its perfection, it exists in reality across the road from my house, on a deeply wooded hill that overlooks my little farm.  Its residents are my neighbors.  I can see the stark white faces of their headstones from my front porch when the leaves begin to fall – when the chill and the bonfire smell of Halloween begin to ride the air.  The cemetery exists in imagination, too.  Maybe it doesn’t look quite like this one.  Maybe it is nestled in a green place, inside the town limits.  Or maybe it is grand with mausoleums and stone angels.  Wherever it is, and whatever its attributes, it is an icon of spine-tingling fiction.

I love horror fiction, but terror is a more subtle flavor.  What is the difference?   I think it might be that horror is a little more visceral, and often features gore to some extent.  Terror is, perhaps, a little more cerebral in its effect.  The art of scaring a person out of several years of comfortable existence without ever touching them?  Horror, to my mind, is a bit more brutish, a bit hairier, fangier, raw.  For me, terror is cold.  But, the two coexist and are so close they are almost mirror images of one another.  Remember, the reflection in the mirror isn’t really your image; it’s the reverse of you.  The dark twin.

To write a memorable fright tale is to make use of both ingredients in judicious balance.  Gratuitous gore and violence, only feebly connected to the plot, is heavy-handed and, I think, off-putting.  Yet, a little wisely spilled blood can season the story deliciously.  Readers are savvy about their chosen genre, and terror-tale aficionados will appreciate an elegant scare.  Think of Shirley Jackson’s story The Lottery, or her inimitable The Haunting of Hill House.  Such a wonderful feast of limbic darkness, and so sensitively fashioned!  If I were to advise on the writing of a terrifying story, I would caution against the creeping cliché, encourage a less-is-more attitude (without fearing horror’s full-court press when necessary), and invite you – for the sake of inspiration – to spend a little time with my very quiet neighbors.

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2 thoughts on “Bleak As You Like It

  1. Elizabeth,

    I enjoy reading just about anything, so long as it’s well written. I’ve read some very good Stephen King and I’ve read some bad Stephen King. I enjoy many of Dean Koontz’s stories, but not all are equal. I mention King because his "Pet Cemetery" tops my list of stories leaving that left me in an altered state. I’ve always been a Sci-Fi / Fantasy fan, but horror is neatly tucked in there as well. Mostly I love any writer who takes me to an imaginary place and makes me believe it exists. I return time and again. In-between, I keep thinking it must have been real.

    Ultimately, years later, I may remember the good stories I’ve read as perhaps a movie? No? Perhaps it was a story I once heard? No? Perhaps it actually was real? (It might have been!). Or was it something I read in a book? The memories seem real. That is good writing and I’m addicted to the Authors who know how to do this to me. Always better when I get to melt into their tale. The only thing better in my opinion, is the unfolding of my always vivid dreams, powered by my rich and powerful imagination.

    Keep up the good works!

    Brother John
    Lansdowne, Pennsylvania  USA 

    1. I, too, have eclectic reading tastes. Horror/terror is near the top of the list, though. I LOVE King, have since I was in middle school, but even he has committed some boners. Koontz is a great writer, but I find his stories to be quite similar to one another in a way that leaves me jumbling their plots and characters. I love the suspense and building of tension in frightening tales even more than the big moment when all the monsters bolt from the closet. I loved Tana French’s novel In The Woods (and the two subsequent connected novels), even though I suppose it would be categorized under mystery. And Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is one of my all time favorites. Another favorite is The Fig Eater by Jody Shields. These are all rich in plot and well-developed characters. They start with a mystery, rather than a horror, but as the characters struggle to solve it, an otherworldly and terrifying something creeps in. So good! Not typical horror fare (which I also love), but something more subtle that works its way into your brain and stays with you. It’s all good, though, as long as the writer pays attention to his/her storytelling and doesn’t try only to shock the reader.

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