The horror genre has gone through several major changes in the past few decades. It has moved from novels such as Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to the likes of Misery, The Books of Blood and more recently, A Head Full of Ghosts. The transition is understandable – no literature genre stays the same decades after decades because people’s desires change. While Dracula was incredibly successful at that time, nowadays the market is saturated by vampire stories. Moreover, vampire stories have become a joke lately, with the likes of Twilight completely ruining what vampires represented for hundreds of years.
But what makes a good horror novel? There are lots of people who try their hand at horror because it seems to be the easiest genre to develop. Take one character, mix it with a few monsters, add in a teaspoon of love between the said character and another one, sprinkle a bit of gore and voila, you got yourself a horror novel, right? Wrong. Writing quality horror novels is just as difficult as writing any other kind of novel that fits a specific genre. Let’s analyze a few of the major horror writers of the 21st century in order to see what makes a great horror novel.
1. Stephen King
Stephen King is without a doubt the most popular horror writer of the past few decades. But the reason why he is so popular is not because of the monsters that he creates – but because he makes the readers love the characters … and then kills them. In a way, Stephen King was the original George R. R. Martin.
Think about Misery for a second. A woman torturing a man. This is not such an uncommon situation in horror literature and in terms of the torture itself, other writers probably wrote it better. But what makes this story is scary is the fact that you are made to empathize with the main character. You get to read about how Annie tortures him and see it through his eyes. You become part of the horror and you experience the horror yourself. If the story would have been just about a man tortured by a woman, you probably would’ve shrugged and thought ‘well, it happens I guess, but it’s fiction.’ Stephen King makes you learn more about both characters and then places you in the middle of the torture. This is a formula he uses in all of his books and it has been successful so far.
What you can learn from here: don’t focus on the gore and on how horrible the situation is. Develop your characters, make the reader like them … and then put them in unforgiving circumstances and watch the reader experience dread when the characters are in danger.
2. Clive Barker
Clive Barker is the master of monsters. He too writes horror, but of a different kind than Stephen King. While King focuses primarily on the characters and on making them believable so that the readers will become more connected to them, Clive Barker focuses on the monsters. The Hellraiser series focuses on deformed creatures that roam the Earth and which are so hideous, that the mere sight of them terrifies people. The Books of Blood is an amazing collection of short stories that puts a different spin on the typical monsters that we all read about. Some monsters are terrifying (The Son of Celluloid is a monster created from the tumor of a convict dying in a cinema), while others are good characters (Everville).
What you can learn from Clive Barker: be unique. Put a different spin on the typical horror elements. Clive Barker became unique because of his unique writing style. Develop your own and you will stand out of the crowd.
3. Paul Tremblay
A newcomer in the horror genre, Paul Tremblay will surely become one of the greatest writers of this genre if he continues to write high quality horror as he did until now. A Head Full of Ghosts has been praised by the likes of Stephen King and Joe Hill and for good reason. He took a typical horror story – a girl being exorcised – and placed it in our world dominated by technology and the internet. What came out was a brilliant story about a family dealing with the consequences of one of their family members, the eldest daughter, being possessed … ish. We are never quite sure whether the girl is possessed or whether she suffers from some sort of mental illness. In an attempt to profit off of the situation, the family agrees to a show about their struggles and the girl’s exorcism is streamed on TV. This is a brilliant take on the classic exorcism story.
What you can learn from this: taking a classic story that has become almost a cliché nowadays and then mixing it with the elements of the modern world can turn into a successful one. However, you have to be careful not to turn the story into a parody of the classical one. The market is full of those.
So there you have it. Three writers that prove that writing quality horror revolves around more than just gore, creepy monsters and serial killers. I suggest reading all of them to get a real sense of what they did with the horror genre. As Stephen King himself once said, the only way to learn how to write is to read, read and read some more.
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