by Robert W. Walker
Author of Flesh Wars, Bloodscreams, Abaddon & more
How do we, as authors, get to the level of proficiency that readers send us comments like, “While I read your books, I have to put them out at night—on the porch”, or “I literally threw your book across the room, but crawled over later and finished it”?
That kind of compliment is music to the ears of suspense and horror authors, who are like big kids anxious to frighten our readers; we jump from the pages to shock you. But how do we manage it?
If we can frighten readers through use of our characters, our settings, and our props, then by all means we are turning our people, places, and things to good advantage and full-on use. We get there by means of the useful notion that the devil is in the details. Imagine, if you will, a child’s story—maybe Three Billy Goats Gruff or Charlotte’s Web, for that matter. In the one, we are convinced there is a troll beneath every bridge anxious to eat anything daring to cross it. Then the goat brothers sacrifice one another to the monster . . . creepy!
In the other tale, we have a spider coming to the rescue of a pig, and Charlotte and Wilbur have a full-blown relationship. The characters are fully realized—so much so that they come alive for the mesmerized reader. How can this be?
Details can sell us on any preposterous notion, as in my answer to spontaneous human combustion: creating a creature who smokes people the way we smoke cigarettes in my Flesh Wars books, or my witches in Abaddon who possess a young boy and direct him to become a serial killer.
The reader is convinced to suspend disbelief through the careful planting of detail atop detail that uses all five senses and sometimes the sixth sense. It requires long and torturous rewrites to fully develop a scary person (antagonist or creature), a scary setting (loco-location), and frightful props (from ax, to cleaver, to Stryker saw).
Naming of names—be it people, places, or props—is also a way to get that fright factor working. Names are scarily specific—like Stryker saw—notice it gets capitalized as names should. The Lincoln Towers underground parking lot becomes even scarier as a modern-day haunted place due to the name, the specific location at Lincoln and Belmont in Chicago. (Notice more caps?)
It is incumbent upon the modern author to find modern places to haunt, like a museum of modern art after hours, or a trailer park, or a single trailer in that park or … fill in the blank. Locations—and detailed locations at that—win the day when we wish to terrify.
In fact, it is true of any good writing that we want to be specific—all good writing is detailed to the nth degree; it is thesaurus-ing a mood, a point, a feeling, a wound, or a bleed out. We cannot get away with simply saying “it was hot” or “it was cold”—not by a long stretch—as we need to use every word possible that comes with heat (hot, searingly so), which must include sweltering, sweat, perspiration, and boiling, as well. For cold, we need to muster all the words at our command that show frigid, icy, ice-pick-shaped crystals beneath the nails painted with acrylic chartreuse, as in a fun house for my PSI Blue and Deja Blue.
So if there is a secret to scary writing, can it be that simple? Yes, it can, and yes, it is. As Stephen King puts it, “If you can’t legitimately scare the reader, go then for the gross out.” But even the gross out requires great attention to DETAIL.
About Robert Walker:
Award-winning author and graduate of Northwestern University, ROBERT W. WALKER created his highly acclaimed INSTINCT and EDGE SERIES between 1982 and 2005. Rob since then has penned his award-winning historical series featuring Inspector Alastair Ransom with CITY FOR RANSOM (2006), SHADOWS IN THE WHITE CITY (2007), and CITY OF THE ABSENT (2008), and most recently placed Ransom on board the Titanic in a hybrid historical/science fiction epic entitled Titanic 2012 – Curse of RMS Titanic. Rob’s next book, DEAD ON, is a PI revenge tale and a noir set in modern day Atlanta. More recently he has written Bismarck 2013, a historical horror title, The Edge of Instinct, the 12th Instinct Series, and a short story collection entitled Thriller Party of 8 – the one that got away. Rob’s historical suspense CHILDREN of SALEM, while a historical romance and suspense novel, exposes the violent nature of mankind via the politics of witchcraft in grim 1692 New England, a title that some say only Robert Walker could craft—romance amid the infamous witch trials. Robert currently resides in Charleston, West Virginia with his wife, children, pets, all somehow normal. For more on Rob’s published works, see www.RobertWalkerbooks.com, www.HarperCollins.com, or www.amazon.com/kindle books. He maintains a presence on Facebook and Twitter as well.
If you want to check out the titles mentioned in this blog, here are the links:
Flesh Wars 1