In a horror story, the back story must explain the cause, motive, or reason for the uncanny incidents that have been occurring in the narrative. To be satisfying, the explanation must be plausible. It must be feasible. It must be believable. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t be impossible. Let me explain.
In Dean Koontz’s novel The Taking, a series of bizarre incidents begins when Molly Sloan, one of the novel’s two protagonists, unable to sleep, goes downstairs to work on a manuscript in progress and sees wolves huddled on her front porch. Other animals, some of which would ordinarily be prey to their predatory companions, flee together from what the Molly supposes must be a common enemy. What could be so threatening to wild animals, including wolves, she wonders, as to cause them to flee in panic, putting aside their innate enmity toward one another?
A strange, silver rain with an unusual scent falls, and an eerie fungus grows upon every surface, including plants, trees, buildings, and even human beings, as a thick fog cuts people off from one another, reducing visibility to near zero.
Molly and her husband Neil gather with other townspeople in a local tavern, trying to understand what is happening and what can be done about their situation. Strange objects, resembling spaceships, loom overhead, and residents of the town feel as if, bathed in lights from these ships, they are known thoroughly, from the inside out. Another, more personal marvel also occurs as Molly, who has been unable to conceive for years, becomes pregnant. The townspeople conclude that the earth has been invaded by an advance team of aliens whose purpose is to reverse-terraform the planet to make its atmosphere suitable for their kind.
Mirrors in the tavern show images of the deaths of those who have sought shelter there, and Molly and Neil flee, pursued by strange creatures as the seek children whose parents have abandoned then. Strangely, a dog guides them on their mission.
By morning, the uncanny rain has stopped, and the fungus, along with the corpses of those who have been killed by monstrous beings, are gone, The dazed remnants of the town’s citizenry begin to rebuild, acting as if nothing unusual has happened.
Such is the plot of the story proper. As is typical of horror stories, much of the novel’s suspense derives from the succession of increasingly bizarre incidents that destroys civilization and its comforting traditions and customs, creates dangerous situations, and moves toward an inevitable catastrophe that threatens to obliterate life itself. All along the way, even as the reader enjoys the panic, terror, and chaos, he or she wonders what has caused these bizarre incidents. The answer is the back story.
Cleverly, Koontz provides an explanation early in the course of the story proper, attributing the bizarre incidents to an advance party of extraterrestrials who, by reverse-terraforming the earth, prepares the planet for the main party of invaders who are yet to come. His explanation is a red herring that allows his real explanation for the mystery of the bizarre incidents to surprise his readers.
His novel’s epilogue provides the back story, as readers learn that the town is not under attack by aliens from another world, after all. Recalling a message that she’d heard (and to which Koontz has made his readers privy as well) the crew aboard a space station transmit at the outset of the attack, before they were killed and the station was destroyed, Molly is able to translate the strange words of the message, after writing it phonetically in sand: “Yimaman see noygel, see refacull, see nod a bah, see naytoss, retee fo sellos” means “My name is Legion, is Lucifer, is Abbadon, is Satan, Eater of Souls.” She and Neil realize that the Rapture has occurred. God has taken the souls of the blessed, leaving behind the rest, and the strange rain has brought a flood upon the planet similar to the one that occurred in the time of Noah. Once again, humanity has become too wicked to continue its existence, and the judgment of God has fallen. Molly tells her husband that she will write a book for her as-yet-unborn child, so that he or she will know how the world ended and why they were spared.
In the story proper, Koontz, while intentionally misleading his readers as to the true cause of the strange incidents that are occurring, also prepared them to accept the actual cause. In telephoning a family member, Molly and Neil learned that the relative, a Christian, attributes the strange rain and the other bizarre incidents to God’s work in ending the world, rather than to some other cause. Therefore, in a sense, both Molly and Neil were tipped off to the actual cause, but Koontz includes their conversation only briefly, letting the readers assume that the relative simply believes something that he finds comforting or is even, perhaps, simply a misguided religious fanatic whose explanation of events can be dismissed. In fact, in the end, it turns out to be true. Thus, the final and “true” explanation of the events that have transpired is not something the reader hears for the first time at the end of the story; he or she has been clued in early on.
Other writers are not as adept at developing a back story that, within the terms of the story’ internal logic, is plausible, feasible, and believable even if, in another world, such as our own, it would not necessarily be possible. Bentley Little is a good example of a horror writer whose back stories often disappoint because they do not explain the novel’s bizarre events in a manner that his readers find to be satisfactory. As a result, many of his readers find his otherwise-entertaining plots to be ultimately unsatisfying.
For example, The Resort, like most of Little’s novels, has an interesting premise, and he does his usual excellent job of creating and maintaining suspense, generating and sustaining an eerie mood, and introducing one astonishing and bizarre incident after another, prompting his readers to want to know what is causing these fantastic events. Lowell and Rachel Thurman and their children visit a fabulous resort, the Reata, that caters to its guests’ every whim. Soon, visitors begin to disappear. Long, loud parties take place in supposedly vacant rooms. The Thurmans’ sons believe there’s a corpse below the swimming pool’s artificial waterfall. Couples engage in perverted sexual behavior. During a trek along a nature trail, the Thurmans’ sons depart from the path and find an older version of the modern resort, where guests participate in depraved sexual activities. As the boys near the resort, its guests vanish. Finally, during a game in which the resort’s guests are forced to participate, players are maimed or killed. The Thurmans try to flee, but their car won’t work and, unable to recruit a mechanic or a tow truck driver who’s willing to make the long trip to the remote resort, the family is stranded among the resort’s mad employees and insane guests. It appears that whatever befell the earlier resort is now happening to the present one.
The novel never explains what causes the madcap behavior of the Reata’s employees and guests. Instead, Little merely suggests that their antics may be related, somehow, to the older resort and to the greed of an early land grabber. Without a plausible, feasible, and believable explanation for the strange activities and events that the story has presented, the reader feels cheated, and what could have been a satisfying and enjoyable read feels more like a con game in which the reader, having spent both time and money for the privilege of being diverted and amused, is the novel’s true victim.
How can writers prevent such disappointment?
In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe, explaining how he write The Raven, provides a way to avoid such unsatisfying outcomes to one’s stories. Start at the end, Poe advises, determining the effect one wants to create. (In horror fiction, the effect, is, of course, horror.) Then, plot the best way to get there, planning the series of incidents that will make up a realistic, logical, and believable series of connected incidents.
This approach is known as the “working backward heuristic.” By adopting this strategy, a writer can, hopefully, avoid the pitfall of writing an otherwise-satisfying story that nevertheless fails due to a disappointing, or even non-existent, explanation for it’s plot’s strange series of incidents. Based on the determination of the effect he wishes to create, Poe then decides what the narrative poem’s length, “impression,” tone, “keynote,” logic, topic, relationships between characters, topic, rationale, denouement, and theme should be, working out each part in relation to the preceding and the following parts and to the poem as a whole. As a result, his poem has a logical and necessary unity and coherence, with one part leading inexorably into, and supporting, the next. A horror writer may not need to work out the details of his or her plot in the exact manner that Poe does with regard to the storyline of The Raven, but starting with a plausible, feasible, and believable explanation for the incidents of the story’s action, at least, will ensure a logical or causal chain of relationships among these incidents and, therefore, a unity and coherence that is both credible and satisfying to readers.