In previous posts, we have advanced the claim that the general formula for the horror story consists of three phases:
- Bizarre incidents occur.
- The protagonist learns the cause of these incidents.
- The protagonist uses his or her newfound knowledge to end the incidents.
What we omitted is that the first phase presupposes a period of quiescence or normality to contrast with the bizarre incidents. Although the bizarre is apt to be seen as such even without a preceding period of serenity or normality, it is also true that a prior state of peace and order will make the subsequent pandemonium all the stranger and more horrific than it might be otherwise. We might call this period of quiescence or normality the calm before the storm.
This period of calm can be presented in almost any terms, as long as the terms are commonplace and ordinary. The everyday will be the state of affairs that is disturbed by the eruption of the bizarre. Most writers take the opportunity to characterize their protagonists and, sometimes, other characters during the calm before the storm, making them likeable, or at least understandable, to their readers before imperiling them, as Dean Koontz does in The Taking and most of his other novels and Stephen King does in Carrie and may of his other works. Writers may also take advantage of the peace and quiet to show the reader around town, as it were, as King does in ‘Salem’s Lot. Of course, writers also establish the story’s basic conflict, although, in doing so, they may also introduce a red herring, as it were, to distract from the true conflict that will later be revealed. Koontz takes this approach in The Taking, implying that the forces of evil represent an advance force of aliens who have come to Earth to reverse-terraform the planet, making it hospitable for their species’ invading army, which is on its way. In reality, the aliens turn out to be Satan and his army of demons, come to destroy humanity. The calm before the storm, in effect, equals the story’s exposition, during which, while things have yet to get out of hand, writers lay the groundwork for the grand story to follow, providing much of the background information that makes the story as a whole intelligible to their readers.