The ingredients of the horror plot are relatively few and relatively simple:
- A series of bizarre incidents or situations (or both).
- An explanation for the bizarre incidents or situations (or both).
- A battle with the monster in which the monster is defeated (using the knowledge gained by the explanation of the bizarre incidents or situations [or both]).
Usually, such a simple formula results in boredom pretty quickly. Even great literature, such as Voltaire’s Candide and Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote, built, as they are, on repetitions of the same plot device (the discovery of evil and suffering in various situations and the misunderstandings of incidents and situations because of a special species of madness, respectively) soon become rather tiresome. Why doesn’t horror fiction?
The answer, of course, is that quite a bit, even of the best of it, does become tiresome, sooner or later. Some stories don’t seem to wear out their welcome as quickly as other stories do or, another way of putting the same thing, some writers don’t seem to wear out their welcome as soon as others do. A few--Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells, Shirley Jackson, Dean Koontz, Stephen King--are perennial favorites, some even long after their demise. (Those who regard Wells as strictly a science fiction writer haven’t read such novels as The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Food of the Gods or such short stories as “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” and “The Red Room”.)
So what makes a horror story (or its author) a perennial favorite? There are lots of ingredients, but these are some of the more noticeable and longstanding
Mystery, especially when it is coupled with menace, is one of the secret ingredients of the perennial favorite. A sense of foreboding, communicated by the story’s tone and mood--its atmosphere--gets under the skin and stays under the skin sooner and longer than most of the story’s other elements, including, when there is an overt one present, the monster. The vehicle for the creation of such atmosphere is description. The writer who can write powerful descriptions is likely to write powerful fiction, and, when the fiction that he or she writes is horror, it will be horrific. The description of Poe’s House of Usher alerts the reader that the decaying mansion is likely, in some sense, to be haunted, even, perhaps, conscious and aware of itself and others, intentionally evil. Stoker’s description of the countryside through which Dracula’s guest wanders on Walpurgis Night suggests that a tremendously powerful force is operating behind the scenes of natural incidents. H. P. Lovecraft’s varied descriptions of the type of monster that menaces the protagonist and the villagers of the small town in his story, “The Lurking Fear,” takes place keeps the reader on the edge of his or her seat and the protagonist’s teeth on edge. The treatment of a horrendous game of chance as commonplace makes Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” a haunting tale. H. G. Wells’ descriptions of the mysterious incidents upon the remote jungle island upon which Dr. Moreau performs experiments as immoral as they are cruel and vicious keeps readers turning the pages, especially when the protagonist, Edward Prendick, believes he may be the doctor’s next victim. Mary Shelley’s description of the pitiful, but also terrifying and repulsive, creation of Victor von Frankenstein hooks her readers and keeps them hooked.
The knowledge that the hyper-masculine monster is much stronger, faster, and inhuman than the human characters adds to the suspense. How can a band of men and women survive against madmen, monsters, and supernatural threats that, too often, are motivated by impulses foreign to the vast majority of people and are not only dangerous but also frequently lethal? “It is a terrible thing,” Jonathan Edwards warned his congregation, “for a sinner to fall into the hands of the living God.” It is also a “terrible thing,” it seems, for a horror story protagonist to “fall into the hands of a living” madman, monster, or supernatural force or entity. How can a mere man or woman be expected to fight that which is far stronger and faster, but much less human, than they are? A boy told a news anchor what it was like to be picked up and flung by a tornado. It was terrifying, he said, because it made him feel helpless. The wind simply lifted and threw him as if he were nothing more than a rag doll. The same sense of terror and vulnerability would apply were a monster to attack, whether its victim was female or male.
The betrayal by a familiar and trusted family member, friend, or neighbor, or even a dog or everyday object, such as a toy, makes a story or an author popular and memorable, as Stephen King proves with such novels as Cujo, Christine, From a Buick 8, ‘Salem’s Lot, Desperation, The Regulators, and others, and as William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Dean Koontz’s The Good Guy and The Taking, and Dan Simmon’s Season of Night, to name but a few, indicate.
Mystery, menace, atmosphere, a powerful monster, and betrayal by one who is familiar and trusted are all ingredients of those horror stories, whether short stories or novels, that become perennial favorites, but one that stands out even more, perhaps, is these narratives’ worlds. The best of these writers have the gift of creating not only intriguing and eerie incidents and situations, sympathetic characters, and zigzagging plots, but each also creates a specific, self-contained world unto itself, full of memorable persons, places, and things. Whether this world is Elm Haven, Castle Rock, Derry, Desperation, Wentworth, a university campus (as in Bentley Little’s University), Dunwich, Arkham, Innsmouth, Kingsport, Moonlight Bay, or some other God-forsaken place, the perennial favorites among horror fiction and authors create their own worlds, replete with all the accoutrements of town, suburbs, or city, even, at times, maps of the streets, complete with the designations of the place’s residents’ houses. These writers make their readers part of a bigger community, giving them a home, no matter how humble and (eventually) dangerous, and the reader, becoming, as it were, him- or herself a fellow resident, at the very least, and possibly a friend, as it were, to one or more of the inhabitants of the story’s town, have themselves a stake in the incidents that occur there and in the outcome of these incidents and situations. It is unfortunate that another person’s house or town or state or country is attacked; it is catastrophic when one's own house, town, state, or country is the one that's attacked--and by a monster, at that! Therefore, to mystery, atmosphere, a powerful monster, and betrayal by one who is familiar, we must add the worst of all possible threats--the one to hearth and home, to family and friend. Look for this sense of community in the stories and novels of horror that have most struck your own fancy and which continue to enthrall and entertain you. It’s one of the horror writer’s most dependable and effective narrative techniques. Hillary Clinton was right about something, after all (sort of); it takes a village to raise the hackles.
Finally, horror fiction offers what no other type of genre can: a unique perspective. The world of horror is not safe (it’s full of monsters and menace, after all), but it’s unsafe in a way unlike the worlds of any other genre. Horror fiction’s ultimate theme is that, in the great roulette wheel in the sky upon which our lives are played out, there is the red (blood) and the black (death), and any spin of the wheel will land us on one or the other. Life, in short, is brutal, full of suffering, and ends, sooner or later (usually sooner, in horror fiction) in death, which may or may not be the end of it. (There could be, as Hamlet supposes, a worse place than the grave.) Life is painful. Life is harsh. Life is grievous. And then we die. However, life has its moments, mostly while the ball is still in motion and hasn’t lit, yet, on the red or the black, and, while the ball is hurtling round and round, we survive; perhaps, we even thrive. We go places, we see things, we might, on occasion, between the halt of the wheel and the jolting hops and skips that end on blood or death, even enjoy ourselves. In addition, since the game of chance that is our lives is viewed, in fiction, from the outside, vicariously through our identification with the little silver ball called the protagonist, we ourselves (although the same may not be said, always, for the protagonist) survive the trauma and the destruction of the red and the black, learning that we can endure despite pain and suffering and death. Meanwhile, the wheel spins, and the silver ball goes round and round, and where she will stop, no one knows (except that it will be on either the red or the black).