I don’t know if you guys have read–or in my case are reading–Stephen King’s Bazaar of Bad Dreams. But if you haven’t, I seriously recommend it. Every chapter, at least so far, starts with the King himself talking about the inspiration for the story–and that alone is beneficial. If you are a student of the literary arts, it’s worth the price of admission just for that.
And when I started reading, I, of course, got to the first story, a little tale called “Mile 81”. It’s a horror story. One so well-crafted that by the end of it I learned so many new things about how to do horror well, my head spun.
And though some of this may be common knowledge, I thought I’d share some of it with you.
Horror is Inevitable:
Stephen King did this odd thing in the story. He telegraphed the deaths. I don’t mean in the usual way; I mean the narrator blatantly tells the reader that characters are about to die before it actually happens.
And for a while, this puzzled me, as it takes away the sense of surprise. But what it leaves…is dread. Because you know they are doomed, and there is nothing to do about it. And the concept of unavoidable anything is unnerving. Death especially.
Give Us Someone to Root for:
In media, killing off a character we dislike is not scary. We might even celebrate it. But a character we care for? One we want to see succeed? One we empathize with? That’s a target we can feel frightened for. Because, make no mistake, horror stories in any medium are not actively threatening the viewer. It’s threatening a character. But if we feel close enough to them, then we get it by proxy.
“Mile 81” does this with children. And you’ll grow to care for them, not just because they are young children, but also because they are likable characters–with personality traits I saw a bit in myself when I was their age.
And those are not people you want to see die.
Horror is a Wind-Up:
Tension. A monster is only so scary. And only for a few seconds on paper. But the waiting for a monster is terrible. It winds you up. And “Mile 81” takes this concept and makes it even stronger, as we spend a good ten pages just getting the characters to a location–without a hint of violence. Not even an indication of what’s to come.
And it weakened my guard this tactic. I almost forgot it was a horror story, and just pictured the likable characters doing interesting things.
And then wham. The story starts up, and shatters my calm, and tells me people are about to die. And I sit there, reading and going “wait, wait, wait, what?! No, not them! I like them!” And ends with the ultimate thought of creepiness that only the best stories can stick in your head. Which is: “Could this really happen?” followed by “Could this really happen to me?”