If asked what scares you, you’d reply ghosts, monsters, goblins and the thing under your bed — if you were nine. Assuming you’re a bit older, your likeliest demons might be employment insecurity, marital discord, staggering debt or that bump that didn’t used to be on your neck.
Remember this as you read or write your next horror novel. It doesn’t mean that vampires and serial killers shouldn’t be featured attractions, but they’re only the visceral representation of what really frightens your protagonists — and your readers.
For instance, two of the most shudder-inducing scenes for me in the Stephen King novel, THE SHINING, appear early in the book and don’t involve ghostly bartenders or sinister topiary. One scene takes place after father and disgraced former teacher Jack Torrance nearly sabotages his opportunity to caretake the Overlook Hotel by smarting off to his arrogant employer. He’s warned by the friend who set Jack and his family up with the temporary gig that Jack is already on shaky ground, so he must call back Mr. Ullman and humble himself before the hotel manager. As he makes nice with the “officious prick,” Jack chews on bitter aspirin tablets to try to calm the tension headache raging within him.
This is such a tense scene because it foreshadows Jack’s growing anger and frustration with the direction his life is taking.We sense his panic and desperation. He and Wendy have a rattletrap car and probably not enough gas money to leave the old hotel and seek work elsewhere if this job falls through due — once again — to his personality flaws. The horror of the moment is one of impending financial doom, a spectre we can all see in this shaky economy.
The second scene is when Jack gives his son, Danny, a dormant wasp nest. The hornets become active at night in Danny’s warm bedroom and repeatedly sting the young boy. Although it’s an accident, it reminds Wendy of that other time Jack had broken Danny’s arm in an alcohol-fueled rage. Wendy’s instinctive reaction is a mix of fear, hostility and suspicion. We feel Jack’s guilt, shame and bewilderment — as well as his smoldering resentment with the way his wife will never fully let him forget the sins of his past.
There’s not a whiff of ghostly activity in either scene, but both are powerfully effective because they set the tone for the supernatural events to follow and set up the reader to better relate to Jack and his family. Now we care about these characters.
I try to blend mundane and otherworldly horror in my own upcoming novel, BLOODTHIRST IN BABYLON (Samhain Horror, Jan. 2012). The bad guys here belong to two warring clans of vampires who’ve made their home for more than a century in the small Michigan town. But what’s really scary in a relatable way is how the economy has played such havoc with the lives of the stragglers who find their way to Babylon — a place suspiciously ripe with employment opportunity — that they must try to ignore every sign of trouble even as their numbers dwindle with every attack. It’s not vampiric forces providing the biggest chills, but the lack of options brought on by financial ruin, a threat that looms like a shadow behind many of us today. So go ahead and ham up your horror fiction as much as you like, but ghosts, demons and serial killers have met their match in the real-life fears that haunt contemporary life. Keep this in mind and you’ll write a horror novel that we can all relate to, with thrills and chills far scarier than the skankiest swamp creature. Check out BLOODTHIRST IN BABYLON if you’d like to read an excerpt or pre-order my novel from Samhain Horror.