What Makes a Good Horror Story (To Me)

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So, first let me clear the air and say that I am NOT an authority on Horror at all. I….don’t actually read a lot of Horror? I think I did go through a phase in my youth. Ah, remember the days when there was actually a Horror section in the bookstore? I do. Does that mean I’m old? Probably…. Anyway. Like I said I did enjoy Horror when I was a lot younger–I grew up with Lois Duncan in middle school and Christopher Pike’s books in high school. Then I started reading adult Horror as well around the same time–Jay Anson, Stephen King, Anne Rice. But I never read got super invested in the genre! I’ve read some short fiction and a book here and there but…that’s about it. Still, I do know what scares me, personally, in a good horror story!

I think, for me, the scary parts of stories are the creepiness of them. I’m not much for blood and gore, but give me something creepy and I’m terrified out of my mind. This is why ghost stories will get me every time. I remember when I was in high school I was hanging out with my cousin at her friends house for a game night–so this was a loooong time ago. We were all sitting around talking about ghosts and spirits and ‘my aunt told me this story that happened to her’ and ‘one time when I went to this house…’ etc etc. There was such a creepiness to the stories overall that I….completely scared myself. I remember turning to my cousin (who is eight years older than myself) saying ‘I think when you drop me off at my house I’m going to be too scared to walk up to my room in the dark so I’m gonna need you to walk me up the stairs’ and she responded ‘are you kidding, I’m terrified, you’re coming to my apartment I can’t go there alone!’. And this is what good horror can do, I think. Bring out that primal fear that makes us shiver and peer into the shadows, wondering if something is there, waiting to get us. At least, that’s how it is for me.

I am so hit or miss with King’s work but when he’s doing creepy he does it exceedingly well. To date, the scariest book I’ve read is The Shining. And it’s because of that damn topiary scene. Those of you that have read it will know what I’m talking about. That scene made me afraid to close my eyes, to turn my back on something, for fear of what would happen when I wasn’t looking. This played on fears that I had as a child, being afraid of the dark and trying to fall asleep at night staring resolutely into the one sliver of light in the room so as to not look into what I couldn’t see.

There’s another kind of creepy as well, and it’s the kind that an idea can bring, a certain notion that is just…off-putting. One of the creepiest things I’ve ever read is in Anne Rice’s The Mummy: Or Ramses the Damned. This is probably my favorite book by her for a number of reasons and it’s honestly not that scary of a book BUT. It does have its moments. This isn’t a huge spoiler but it is, technically so forewarned. In the book there is an elixir that essentially makes one immortal. Not just a person but any living thing. So, Ramses, back in the day is experimenting with this elixir because, hey, now he found a way to have an unlimited food supply for his people! If you have immortal animals but can, you know, cut part of them off as meat, or have grain that instantly grows back after harvesting…you get the picture. Well, the only problem was when people ate this food, the cells were still living so they didn’t digest. They just…kept on living. There is literally no way to kill these cells. This…is quite horrific to me? If you drink this elixir and cut off your finger, your finger keeps on living FOREVER, independently. But it’s not you? But it contain parts of you? What makes a person a person? What happens if you’re dismembered? Do you, as a thinking being, whatever a soul is, survive? For these reasons, I’ve always found this particular plot device in this book especially creepy.

I like when things are not always explained as well. I don’t always need to see the monster to fear it. Take the movie Cloverfield, for example. Now, I know this movie was almost universally panned but I really liked it for the most part. You don’t see the actual monster until the end and then it’s only a glimpse. Honestly think it would have worked even better had we not seen it at all, but I still really enjoyed the fear of the unknown that this presented. I was also terrified of zombies for a while. Especially when there’s no explanation as to why the dead are suddenly coming back to life. When there’s an explanation it takes some of the wind out of the sails of my fear, so to speak.

Well, those are a few things that scare me and why! What are things that you find scary in fiction? Leave a note in the comments, I’d love to chat!

16 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Horror Story (To Me)

  1. Tammy says:

    I love creepy horror too, and now I need to reread The Mummy because I don’t remember much about it! Slasher horror doesn’t work that well for me unless its got depth to it, like humor or emotion.

      • cjcasey says:

        I still read stuff that can be called horror, but I usually tell people that I like “creepy” books. Peter Straub and Robert Aickmann over Stephen Long and Ramsey Campbell. Don’t get me wrong… those last two has an incalculable effect on my writing. But the stories of the first two are carved in my bone and make me look over my shoulder at night.

      • waytoofantasy says:

        Making you love over your shoulder should be the goal for a good horror, imo. Don’t get me wrong I do love some camp now and then but that stuff doesn’t leave me freaked out the way the genuinely scary stuff does.

  2. Zezee says:

    “And this is what good horror can do, I think. Bring out that primal fear that makes us shiver and peer into the shadows, wondering if something is there, waiting to get us.” <<< TOTALLY agree with you there, and that's one of the major reasons why The Shining is one of my favs as well. It taps into the characters' primal fears and so doing, taps into the reader's as well.
    I think good horror goes for those primal fears and lifts the illusion on our lives a bit or at least pushes against things we take for granted or lies we tell ourselves.
    I didn't start reading horror books until just a few years ago, I think. I find horror novels way more scary that horror shows. I like horror shows but tend to lean more toward slasher flicks.

    • waytoofantasy says:

      Oh yeah, definitely. I think horror can be escpism but it’s also great for pointing out things that we might overlook.
      I also think horror novels are way more scary than movies! I’ve read a lot less horror than the amount of horror movies I’ve watched. I used to love the campy slasher flicks back in the day–those Freddy and Jason movies were my thing haha.

  3. maddalena@spaceandsorcery says:

    I will take creepy over blood&gore every day: it’s the *expectation* of horror that leaves a deeper mark than the horror itself, and that’s why keeping the central element unseen – the ghost, the monster, or whatever – enhances the feeling of dread and terror. There is more fear in a creaking door than in a slavering monster, after all… πŸ™‚

  4. Mary Drover says:

    I love that we don’t get to see the monster until the end in A Quiet Place. That movie is so eerie and unsettling, particularly because, while I don’t think monsters of that sort are going to suddenly appear, the idea that noise is dangerous feels like such a very real thing that could happen, and that’s terrifying.

    I also read (and watched) The Haunting of Hill House recently, and the idea that houses could be bad, that they could inherently contain evil, made so much sense to me, and it definitely made walking around my house at night difficult for the weekend I was reading/watching. I just love when it’s little, subtle things that pile on top of each other to make the scary thing so it feels like you could just ignore one of them, but when there’s so many small things happening at once, it feels like an all-out attack, especially when it’s normal things like banging on walls and lights going out. Now I’m creeping myself out again, thank goodness it’s daytime right now!

    • waytoofantasy says:

      I still need to watch A Quiet Place–I’ve heard so many amazing things about that one. Maybe when it gets closer to Halloween….LOL. But yes, that feeling is exactly it, that’s the kind of horror I love.

      Yes, exactly! I’m hoping to read that book soon. If I can get through my current reads.
      LOL, well just talking about scary things like that sometimes scares me too, it gets into your brain and makes you start questioning everything you see. I definitely can’t read scary stories at night or I have to run upstairs really fast because I feel like something is watching me!

      • Mary Drover says:

        It’s so, so good, and there’s going to be another, which looks just as amazing!

        YES! I’ve been rewatching Supernatural, and I forgot just how creepy the first season was, and I had to quickly shake around my schedule so I wasn’t watching it at night, haha.

  5. 24hr.YABookBlog says:

    This is a super interesting discussion post and I’m actually not much of a horror reader, but you bring up lots of great points. I totally agree about “not explaining things well” I think that can often help, still leaving things to the unknown! There’s a few horror reads on my list, but tbh its my least read genre so I never find time to get to them even though I really want to!! πŸ˜‚πŸ’•

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