From “The Call of Cthulhu” to “It,” horror fiction has been around for many years, inducing feelings of terror and fear among its readers. In honor of Halloween, we asked Gary Goshgarian, a professor in the English department and award-winning author of eight critically acclaimed suspense novels, to explain what makes a horror story truly frightening.
What are some of the essential characteristics of a frightening story?
Like Halloween masks, horror stories bespeak our fear of death. So, an essential characteristic is dread—that is, a story with a protagonist whose sense of menace we identify with. The moment naïve Jonathan Harker enters Dracula’s castle we fear for him. For anyone who has no mirror reflection, who refers to howling wolves as “children of the night,” and who has protruding canines is no one you turn your back to—or neck.
Even when a protagonist’s intent is evil, we should sense a growing menace. Immediately in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” narrator Montresor announces vengeance on acquaintance Fortunato for an unnamed insult. And the rest of the tale is driven by dark anticipation of the inevitable as we descend with the duo through dark, damp tunnels of Montresor’s family crypt to the shocking walling up of his victim.
Since most horror tales involve the supernatural, authors enhance the dread with hints that forces beyond the familiar rational world are at work. H.P. Lovecraft was a master at this, dropping clues that just beneath the skin of things resides a ghoulish underworld bent on human corruption.
In horror fiction, things fall apart. And nowhere is that more evident than in a story’s atmosphere—another key ingredient. Most things that frighten take place in uncomfortable settings–dark, cold, claustrophobic, and foul. Early gothic writers staged their tales amidst ruined, decaying castles, enhancing the creepiness. Today urban decay pervades the tales of Clive Barker, Dean Koontz, and, of course, Stephen King. Yet more than mere stage setting, that decay reflects the mental and moral decay at the heart of the tales.
Why is Stephen King known as the king of contemporary horror?
Because he has sold more books than any other writer in the world—300 million. He reigns because his first novel, 1974’s “Carrie,” was made into a hit movie and became a bestseller; and he was young and enormously productive, turning out one after another. His 40-year output is staggering—scores of books, hundreds of short stories, numerous screenplays, not to mention dozens of movies based on his works. Stephen King goes beyond brand name. He’s a natural resource.
Besides his extraordinary output, his is one of the most fertile imaginations in print coupled with exceptional writing talent. Yes, he can at times sound juvenile, making booger and bathroom jokes and lame asides. But he can also be quite literary and lyrical, and is almost always compelling and entertaining.
King is also gifted at creating memorable characters with whom readers can empathize—underdogs caught in extraordinary, macabre circumstances. And he knows how to smack our “phobic pressure points”—those raw fears of death, betrayal by people we trust, insanity and malevolence. Likewise, he is a master at generating horror from the commonplace: the family cat (“Pet Sematary”), the family dog (“Cujo”), the family car (“Christine”); a garbage disposal (“Firestarter”), an author’s “number one fan” (“Misery”); your cell phone (“Cell”).
Does an audience’s perception of horror tales change over time?
Until the 1970s, horror tales were read by adolescent males whom parents locked in the cellar when company came. It was considered junk fiction by the establishment. And, frankly, a lot of it was. But as with anything else, money talks. With the smashing success of Stephen King, writers few people had heard of became brand names—Peter Straub, Ann Rice, and Dean Koontz. Their successes drew new talents into the field—people who were weaned on Poe and Lovecraft as well as William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. People who knew what made good writing: controlling artistic visions, credible characterizations, realistic sounding dialogue, evocative atmosphere, telling action and fresh use of language. And they worked their craft to develop the genre into a sophisticated and provocative form. In short, horror tales got respect.