Postscripts: What is horrifying?

Or even, Gentle Reader, what is horror?

My students are currently writing on horror and the gothic in Tana French’s excellent novel In the Woods.  I have taught this book several times and never cease to be amazed by how well it teaches, and how well it engages students.  But one of the best questions I think one can ask about this novel is, what makes the horror horrifying?

A very Stephen King question, no?

I am working on a horror scene in The Sequel, and I need to think through how to engage horror on the page.  My novel is not horror; it’s historical urban fantasy, for lack of a better phrasing.  But this novel takes elements of early-twentieth-century noir, and therefore, a bit of the gothic, too.  Because I’m dealing with mythological elements (the “fantasy” in my categorization), I want to use them to the best of my ability.

So I ask you, what is horror on the page for you?  How do you best respond to horror in novels or short stories?


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4 thoughts on “Postscripts: What is horrifying?”

  1. Readers can, I think, peripherally share joy and triumph, especially for characters that are supposed to be admirable, but when dealing with protagonists in horror, the key seems to get into the character’s mindset and write that. It needs to be very personal and very confined, and more so as the character is moved further and further from the routine and normal. Antagonists, on the other hand, need to fit their style. Dispassionate and removed writing for clinical and methodical antagonists doing what they do for particular results, personal almost protagonistic-perspective-style writing for antagonists driven by the means rather than ends. And it’s perfectly okay to sweep from one to the other as the reasons and methods change.

  2. Blood and gore do nothing for me. It’s the psychological torment, especially when you imagine yourself in the character’s place and think “Oh God, what would I do in this situation?”

  3. Horror for me is when taboos are broken and/or what is sacred is profaned. In Anne Rice’s work, there is usually what I think she calls the it moment. This is the climax in literary terms. For example, in The Witching Hour, the evil spirit Lasher takes over a fetus and is born on Christmas Eve. The fact that Lasher is made flesh is bad enough without its happening on the night of Christ’s birth. Sacrilege! That probably works best if the person is a believer or at least a respecter of a certain religious tradition.

    Also, horror is when you thought one thing and turned out to be wrong, “horribly” wrong; but, that can also be humor.

    I’m more into psychological horror although if one plays into basic human fears, such as being buried alive, and gets graphic with the description of that and/or of effects of that, that’s horror.

    1. I just realized that I have been confusing Tana French with Tanith Lee. Lee did some fairy tale rewrites and some of them are in the horror genre, for example, her version of Cinderella. I suppose any time one does a rewrite or writing back, one is upsetting the conventions of the well-known tale. Whether the result is horror or humor will depend on how it’s done.

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