Making the Most of the Macabre



(Later than scheduled, sorry about that folks! Better late than never though, ey?)

Whether they admit or not most people are fascinated by death.

It is, after all, the only thing we all have in common.

As horror writers we tend to deal with the macabre with both detachment and attraction. We’re interested in death, decay, the subjects that other people think of as ghastly, or inappropriate for dining conversation. We want to write about it, to expose it, to give it power but at the same time take away its overwhelming control of our deepest fears.

This is where it gets complicated. Horror writers who revel in writing the macabre tend to read a hell of a lot of horror. As with anything if you do it enough you become desensitised to the parts that were once painful or awkward. Whereas other people may squirm and squeal at the thought of a corkscrew being used to slowly pull an eyeball from its socket, we horror writers are racking our brains in order to come up with apt descriptions of the sound it would make, or making a mental note to Google whether a half detached eyeball still connected to the optic nerve is capable of sight.

By overexposing ourselves to the macabre we risk losing sight (sorry, I couldn’t resist) of the reasons we were drawn to the genre in the first place – the shock, the thrill, the unexpected. If you lose the ability to be truly terrified by a horror novel then are you still capable of writing one?

Some writers will overcompensate – throwing blood, gore, and violence in to the mix at such a rate that they find they have little room for actual plot. So how do you decide what the appropriate ‘horror level’ should be?

It’s a bit like trying to decide what percentage of your novel should be dialogue, or how long your average chapter length should be. I guarantee you’ll find an answer for any of these questions somewhere on the internet, or lurking in one of your numerous ‘How to write…’ books you have lying around at home. Somewhere, someone will have an answer to ‘how many question marks should my novel contain?’ and ‘how many pages should I leave in between naughty words so my readers don’t think I have a limited vocabulary?’ There is an ‘answer’, but it’s probably not right for you.

As with any element of a novel (dialogue, exposition, conflict, twists) the use and misuse of a plot device is governed by the story. Listen to your work; go with the flow of the piece rather than forcing macabre ridden chunks into scenes that don’t require them. Remember the things that drew you to horror in the first place, the insidious nature of creeping dread. Not buckets of blood and the cheap film trick of making the audience ‘jump’…if that’s possible in a book.

Adding superfluous gore is just going to piss of a real horror fan (and a cat jumping out of a wardrobe will really piss them off) and result in them reaching for a book that deals with horror like a grown up.

Creating a good horror book doesn’t mean slathering on the tropes and clichés or even making sure all the ‘essential ingredients’ are included. It’s about scaring your reader, or having them scared on behalf of your characters. Readers won’t give a damn that the protagonist is about to get fed into a giant blender by Boris von Killsalot if they don’t care about him; and they couldn’t give two hoots about the evil doctor’s plans if his motivation is as thin as the paper the story is written on.

Adding macabre elements to a story isn’t as simple as browsing a pick and mix of ‘done before’ and ‘tried and tested’ it’s about making the reader truly feel fear. If the reader isn’t particularly afraid of clowns then they won’t mind the sudden entrance of Coco the Crazy Clown, but if they know the main character babbles incoherently at the sight of a red nose then the honking shoes worn by Coco suddenly take on an ominous air…but only if they care for the victim!

You have to make the situations (and characters) in your novel so real, that the reader forgets who they are…they’re not Tom, Dick, or Jane anymore; they’re Trevor the taxidermist from Telford – the friendly protagonist of the adventure they are reading living.

As Trevor they suddenly develop a nasty case of coulrophobia. They feel every bead of sweat dripping from his forehead, they share his jelly legs as he rushes to find a hiding place, and they guzzle air greedily as their heart beat faster and faster and faster…until BANG! No please don’t hurt me, Coco! I’ll do anything!

Readers don’t want (Trevor) to die! They want (him) to succeed, they understand it might not be possible to come out of this completely unscathed but that’s what makes it interesting. Trevor might die, but they really, really, reeeaalllly hope he doesn’t. Fear turns to mustreadfaster!

Emotions are heightened, small scares become big scares. Settling floorboards become vicious killers lurking upstairs; a branch rattling a window pane becomes the skeletal fingers of the Grim Reaper; everything is real, everything is…horrifying.

The word macabre means “suggesting the horror of death and decay”. It doesn’t mean knee deep blood and a trip to the local DIY shop for some new power tools. The threat of a chainsaw to someone’s knee caps if they don’t give up their wife’s location, a killer stalking their prey through the graveyard, a torturer sharpening his knives in front of a victim…those are the scary moments. When the chainsaw starts ripping though flesh and bone – that’s just surgery without the anesthetic or medical training.

Yes the thought of sharp cutting teeth ripping out chunks of my flesh is terrifying – but that’s my point…the thought is terrifying. The action is just painful.

Dance with death, foxtrot with the frightening, tango with the terrifying, and disco with the dastardly, but remember the anticipation will always be scarier than the action itself.

Try not to sleep with evisceration on your first date.