Writing original fiction can be challenging. Forget writer’s block. Just coming up with something unique, that hasn’t been done to death, can be a daunting task and that’s especially true if you’re a horror writer.
Horror is a genre that lends itself to creativity and thinking outside the box, but it’s also one of those genres where people tend to like the familiar. Why else are there thousands of vampire and zombie titles on the market? Why do so many reference other famous novels (for instance Dracula) in their titles?
On one level, there’s something comforting about reading a book or watching a film about something you have a general idea about. However, if you’ve ever eavesdropped at a horror convention (like I’ve done) then you’ve probably heard complaints about the lack of originality in certain titles or even franchises. There are a bunch of different factors as to why that continues to be an issue. They include everything from publishers who want a sure fire (read: familiar) winner to attempts at bringing in younger readers by watering down the tension or hyping up the romance.
As horror writers though, we should be probing deeper, exploring the darker corners and finding new ways to scare the pants off our readers. That’s why I’m calling on horror writers to throw away the rule book in your respective genre. You’ve heard that overused expression “think outside the box”. With horror fiction, there should never, ever be a box to begin with. Absolutely anything goes in horror and if you’re willing to open yourself up to shrugging off common perceptions of your topic, then you’ll be able to find veins of gold all around you.
For example, look at the vampire genre. All those night creatures prowling the alleyways are a victim of Hollywood. In Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula can walk around in the sunlight. It’s not a problem at all. The rule of vampires being night time terrors only comes directly from the Bela Lugosi film (and prior to that, the German film Nosferatu). Also, the count in Stoker’s novel is a hideous thing, not the aristocratic, sexual force that vampires are portrayed as this way. Even as he drinks blood and becomes younger, he’s described as unattractive and horrible. Again, Hollywood set a precedent and thousands of authors and screenwriters ran with that.
Stop the trend. Buck the system. Dig deeper, break down the barriers and create your own vision of terror. Is that hard to do? Sure, it’s harder than following the pack but the search for something original shouldn’t be intimidating. It should be exhilarating!
So where does one begin? I have a couple of suggestions that have worked for me.
First, start with what you know. I haven’t met a single horror writer who didn’t start out as a diehard fan of the genre. As such, many of us have seen hundreds of movies and read nearly as many books. Take a look at some of your favorite works, define what makes it a favorite and deconstruct it. Once you’ve done that, look for opportunities to graft new terrors onto it.
Here are a couple of examples of authors who have been very successful with this.
Ghost Story – Peter Straub
This is a novel that tricks you into thinking you know everything about it from the title. Yes, it’s a ghost story, but Straub treats ghosts as something entirely different than the mythology we all know. They’re not white wisps floating through hallways, but instead have a physical being that can be very dangerous. Also, they’re very, very vindictive. Straub titled his book to draw in haunted house fans but blew them away with an original creation that will stay with them long after the final page is turned.
Let the Right One In – John Ajvide Lindqvist
Here’s a vampire story that follows the tropes we’re familiar with. The vampire must drink blood. It can’t be in the sunlight. It has to be invited into the home. Yet, Lindqvist found an original way to tell it, focusing on the relationship between the vampire (locked in a child’s body) and a social outcast who’s bullied by classmates and practically forgotten by his parents. There’s plenty of horror to be had here but it’s a much more emotional story than your average vampire novel.
Another example of ignoring the “box” comes from a fellow writer and friend of mine, Will Mason. He was approached to write for an anthology about “giant monsters”. When you think of that topic, you’re thinking about the heavy hitters like King Kong, Godzilla or an oversized radioactive insect of some sort. Mason thought of something completely different and put the story in the living room of two stoners who look out the window and see a giant horse. Their reactions to what they see and their inability to determine if it’s real creates an entirely new take on the “giant monster” genre.
That’s what I mean when I said earlier that horror writers should never, ever allow themselves to be “boxed”. You can find horror (and humor) almost anywhere if you look hard enough.
My second suggestion is to look at other cultures. A great place to find inspiration is in myths and legends. Culturally, western writers tend to look at European myths more often than not so we get inundated with vampires, werewolves, witches, etc. Pick up a volume of Chinese or Japanese mythology and start thumbing through it. There are all kinds of strange beings and creatures out there that have rarely (if ever) been used in horror fiction. Mixing and matching myths from different cultures can open your eyes to all kinds of possibilities.
A great example of this is Poppy Z. Brite’s short story “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves”. It’s set in India and follows a man whose path home takes him by a shrine to the goddess of death. Each night, as he passes, he thinks to himself how much he would like it if the statue of the goddess came alive. Then, one night it does.
It’s a truly original work of horror and was called out by other writers who declared Brite someone to watch in the genre.
So throw away the rule book. Look for the horrible in unfamiliar places and crank up the tension in original ways. Horror readers deserve something more than a retelling of something that’s come before. It’s up to us to give it to them.