Most writers who delve into horror hit the prose with a bag of clichés and heavy handed stage props—swirling fog, glowing eyes, wicked laughs. Don’t get me wrong, camp can be great (if it’s intentional). However, a more subtle approach can work wonders.
Add Details One by One
Use disturbing details or reversals when describing your scenes. Each one, taken by itself, does little, but in combination, they imbue the reader with unease. Consider Cold Skin by Albert Sánchez Piñol. Here an unnamed narrator just inhabited a weather station on a deserted island.
Just then, I heard a pleasing sound far off. It was more or less like a heard of goats trotting in the distance. At first, I confused it with the pattering of rain; the sound of heavy and distinct drops. I got up and looked out of the closest window. It wasn’t raining. The full moon stained the ocean’s surface in a violet hue. The light bathed the driftwood lying on the beach. It was easy to imagine them as body parts, dismembered and immobile. The whole thing brought to mind a petrified forest. But it wasn’t raining.
Reversal: The narrator thinks it’s raining, but then there’s no rain. We wonder what’s creating that pattering sound, and the not knowing makes us uneasy.
Disturbing details: The water is stained violet, a bloodlike color. This idea is cemented in the reader’s skull with the driftwood, described as dismembered limbs.
Let the Character Freak Out
Nothing creeps out a reader faster than letting the protagonist freak out. Ever wonder why there are so many screams in horror movies? It’s the same thing. As an author, you must find the written equivalent to the scream.
In Bag of Bones by Stephen King, the protagonist, Mike Noonan, begins to believe that his house is haunted. He’s in the basement and hears the sound of someone striking the insulation, but no one else is home.
…every gut and muscle of my body seemed to come unwound. My hair stood up. My eyesockets seemed to be expanding and my eyeballs contracting, as if my head were trying to turn into a skull. Every inch of my skin broke out in gooseflesh. Something was in here with me. Very likely something dead.
King lays it on thick here. Instead of one physical reaction, he dumps the whole bucket on us. He doesn’t dazzle us with a etherial decaying corpse. We won’t even see the ghost till the final chapters. No. He tells us how Noonan feels just in the presence of the thing and that’s what creeps us out.
Another example of the character freaking out can be seen in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
Now we are going to have a new noise, Eleanor thought, listening to the inside of her head; it is changing. The pounding had stopped, as though it had proved ineffectual, and there was now a swift movement up and down the hall, as of an animal pacing back and forth with unbelievable impatience, watching first one door and then another, alert for a movement inside, and there was again the little babbling murmur which Eleanor remembered; Am I doing it? she wondered quickly, is that me? And heard the tiny laughter beyond the door, mocking her.
Here the character doubts herself and what she sees. This is essential to any horror story. When weird things happen, the character mysteries react accordingly. The stranger the situation, the stronger the reaction. And most of us would doubt our sanity in creepy situations.
Let The Reader Do the Imagining
Why should you, the author, do all the heavy lifting. Your reader’s imagination will often fill in the blanks for you. Take this example from Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.
As she reached the driver’s door of the cab, which hung open with vines twisting in and out of its socket of a window, lightning flashed again, painting the whole world purple. In its glare Trisha saw something with slumped shoulders standing on the far side of the road, something with black eyes and great cocked ears like horns. Perhaps they were horns. It wasn’t human; nor did she think it was animal. It was a god. It was her god, the wasp-god, standing there in the rain.
Notice that the monster is only vaguely described. It’s called “something” twice. This lets the reader fill in the blanks. There is enough description that we at least know it’s a big hulking creature. This is the literary equivalent of when Ridley Scott only showed glimpses of the alien in Alien.
Use Strong Verbs
Finally, strong verbs will help any writer to shine, but they can also allow one character to shine over another. Take this excerpt from William Blatty’s The Exorcist.
Regan’s eyes gleamed fiercely, unblinking, as a yellowish saliva dribbled down from a corner of her mouth to her chin, to her lips stretch taut into a feral grin of bow-mouthed mockery.
“Well, well, well,” she gloated sardonically and hairs prickled up on the back of Karras’s neck at a voice that was deep and thick with menace and power. “So, it’s you … they sent you!” she continued as if pleased. “Well, we’ve nothing to fear from you at all.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Karras answered; “I’m your friend and I’d like to help you.”
“You might loosen these straps, then,” Regan croaked. She had tugged up her wrists so that now Karras noticed they were bound with a double set of leather restraining straps.
“Are the straps uncomfortable for you?”
“Extremely. They’re a nuisance. An infernal nuisance.”
The eyes glinted slyly with secret amusement.
Karras saw the scratch marks on Regan’s face; the cuts on her lips where apparently she’d bitten them. “I’m afraid you might hurt yourself, Regan,” he told her.
“I’m not Regan,” she rumbled, still with that taut and hideous grin that Karras now guessed was her permanent expression. How incongruous the braces on her teeth looked, he thought. “Oh, I see,” he said, nodding. “Well, then, maybe we should introduce ourselves. I’m Damien Karras. Who are you?”
“I’m the devil!”
Notice the verbs that Blatty uses with Reagan — gleamed, dribbled, gloated, croaked, rumbled. In contrast, the more calm individual in the scene, Karras, responds with simple verbs like “answered” and “saw”. The contrast allows the reader to see Reagan as disturbing.
If you want to make your readers squirm, reading only in daylight hours, shy away from the obvious gore and claptrap. Rather, take the quieter road of tiny disturbing details built up over pages and chapters. Show how your character reacts to what’s happening, and the reader will feel it too.