Writing Horror and the Paranormal by Eugen Bacon
Writing Horror and the Paranormal
You think horror, you think Bram Stoker, Alfred Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, M. Night Shyamalan, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Eleanor Lewis, H. P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Mark Danielewski, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Anne Rice, Poppy Brite … Guy de Maupassant who wrote across many genres. In his book Danse Macabre, King paid homage to Jorge Luis Borges and Ray Bradbury in his list of ‘six great writers of the macabre’.
As far as storytelling goes, horror can be an exhausted genre, and artists and producers are continually hunting ways to tap into audience curiosity by reinventing it. Horror films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) typecast horror, and copycat stories emerged, exhausting fans with parodic slasher narratives, blood and gore, until zombies burst into the spotlight; the appetite for them has stayed rich.
Is horror the jet black eyes of a silent entity, an atmosphere in a room that creaks, footsteps on a wooden floor, objects changing position, pictures turning to snow on the television screen, things falling when no one else is home, a shadow at the edge of your sight, a spectre on a fence by the road, staring little girls dressed in white, weeping walls, crying babies, songs behind a wall, barking dogs, horses going ape, an aura behind a headstone, a silhouette in every photograph, two sets of the same person out of nowhere, poltergeist?
Clarkesworld in its online guidelines for authors says it looks for horror that ‘can be supernatural or psychological, so long as it is frightening’, but warns against ‘zombies or zombie-wannabes’, ‘stories where the climax is dependent on the spilling of intestines’.
Horror.org admits that answering what is horror is a tough question—where your mind leaps to Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers, someone is looking for Shelley’s Frankenstein or Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:
The popularity of the modern horror film, with its endless scenes of blood and gore, has eclipsed the reality of horror fiction. When you add to that a comprehension of how horror evolved as both a marketing category and a publishing niche during the late eighties—horror’s first boom time—it’s easy to understand why answering the question of what today’s horror fiction actually is has become so difficult.
What is Horror?
Horror is personal. A spider may be horror to you. A snake. Height. Blood. Rot. A dead body. A ghost. In An Evening with Ray Bradbury, the author invited his listeners to ‘list ten things you love, and ten things you hate’ and then to write about those loves and kill those hates—also by writing about them. Do the same with your fears, he said.
Bradbury shared a story on fear. He went to his doctor’s when he was 23 years old. ‘Take some aspirin and go home,’ the doctor said. Bradbury started thinking about tendons and muscles, all the things in his body he hadn’t noticed. The medulla oblongata, a crack in your head that hasn’t filled in yet. The action of the jaw itself. The knee caps. The toes. He went home feeling his bones.
That afternoon he wrote the story of Mr Harris who goes to see his doctor. ‘You’re only nervous,’ the doctor says. ‘Let’s see your fingers. Too many cigarettes. Let me smell your breath. Too much whiskey. Let’s see your eyes. Not much sleep. My response? Go home to bed, stop drinking, stop smoking. Ten dollars please.’ But Harris stands there. The doctor looks up from his papers. ‘You still here? You’re a hypochondriac!’ he says. ‘But why should my bones ache?’ asks Harris. ‘You realize you caused most of the soreness,’ the doctor says. ‘Leave yourself alone. Take a dose of salts. Get out of here now!’
But, alone, Harris examines himself and, in pushing his spinal column, ‘fears and terrors answered, rushed from a million doors’; there is something there, a skeleton inside him. It starts manipulating him, determining whether he is to sit or to stand, a horrible gothic thing inside him. It is squeezing his brain, his vitals. His head aches, his chest is constricted. In an image of life and death, it becomes a competition about being true to himself or the skeleton.
This is how the story ‘Skeleton’ came about. By being true to his own fears Bradbury was able to write speculative fiction stories. ‘Go back in time and collect up your fears,’ he advised. His short story ‘The thing at the top of the stairs’ was also birthed from a personal nightmare:
When I was a kid, the bathroom was upstairs, single light half-way up the stairs. I had to run halfway up the stairs and turn on the light. But I always made the mistake of looking at the top of the stairs, and there was something there waiting for me. So peeing like crazy I fell back down.
He recalled his fear and wrote about it.
This is a great start to writing startling horror and the paranormal.
I was seven or eight and it was night. I was sprawled on a coach in the living room with my mother. She must have forgotten I was there, or perhaps she thought I was asleep. She was watching TV, a British horror I Don’t Want to be Born, sometimes titled Sharon’s Baby, starring Joan Collins, Eileen Atkins and Ralph Bates.
The drownings, the stabbings, the hangings, the decapitations. They stayed with me, that trail of death surrounding a sinister infant whose evil refused to give in to exorcism. My child’s mind augmented the horror, the parallels of a cooing baby with fat legs in a pram and the spate of unusual deaths.
Weeks after, my life sat on pause in that terrible world. I crept about holding out a crucifix and scattering holy water—my mother was a devout Catholic so there were plenty of these. I observed babies with a wary eyes and could not close an eye without lights on. It took years for me to disremember the uncanniness around the possessed baby, the effect of a curse after a woman rebuffed a dwarf. I still remember the fear—it was as real as touch. Shadows with heartbeats lurking under my bed.
What I experienced from watching this paranormal horror was fear, revulsion and spook, and it contained all three types of terror King posted about on Facebook to his over 16,000 followers, and me:
The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worst one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there …
That is what a good horror story does to you.
Revisit the terror you felt as a child when you visited a theme park: how the tiniest hairs at the nape of your neck stood as you stepped into the circus of screams. Remember how, as you trod or rode in a cart along the darkened trail, there was a presence: a wisp of breath, a feather-light touch, a whisper in the shadows, a silhouette inside the fog, a flicker of nights, a howl of laughter … How you barely breathed until a burst of light summoned you back to fresh air.
Stories continue to evolve around the Bermuda Triangle that has inexplicably vanished so many people, planes, and ships. Paranormal stories contain a supernatural element, for instance, an atmosphere, an entity, or a poltergeist. Cinematic examples include director Hideo Nakata’s psychology horror The Ring (Ringu in Japanese), where the ghost of a seer’s daughter murders within seven days anyone who watches a mysterious videotape; Andrew Douglas’ The Amityville Horror, where demonic forces terrorize newlyweds in an abandoned house; and James Wan’s The Conjuring, where paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine seek to resolve a dark force terrorizing a family in a remote farmhouse. A classic paranormal tale is Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol, many times adapted into a film or television drama, a ghost story that transforms the miser, Mr Scrooge.
Commonalities in these narratives are isolation, the uncanny—the strong element in the paranormal.
This is a great start to writing startling horror and the paranormal.
Danged Black Thing by Eugen Bacon
- Publisher : Apex Book Company (20 Jun. 2023)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 166 pages
Danged Black Thing is an extraordinary collection of stories about love and migration, gender and class, patriarchy and womanhood, from a remarkable and original voice. Traversing the West and Africa, they celebrate the author’s hybridity with breathtaking sensuousness and lyricism.
Simbiyu wins a scholarship to study in Australia, but cannot leave behind a world of walking barefoot, the orange sun, and his longing for a “once pillow-soft mother.” In his past, darkness rose from the river and something nameless and mystical continues to envelop his life. In “A Taste of Unguja” sweet taarab music, full of want, seeps into a mother’s life on the streets of Melbourne as she evokes the powers of her ancestors to seek vengeance on her cursed ex. In the cyberfunk of “Unlimited Data” Natukunda, a village woman, gives her all for her family in Old Kampala. Other stories explore what happens when the water runs dry-and who pays, capture the devastating effects on women and children of societies in which men hold all the power, and themes of being, belonging, and otherness.
Speculative, realistic, and even mythological, but always imbued with truth, empathy, and Blackness, Danged Black Thing is a literary knockout.
Eugen Bacon is an African Australian author of several novels and fiction collections. She’s a 2022 World Fantasy Award finalist, and was announced in the honor list of the 2022 Otherwise Fellowships for ‘doing exciting work in gender and speculative fiction’. Danged Black Thing by Transit Lounge Publishing was a finalist in the BSFA, Foreword, Aurealis and Australian Shadows Awards, and made the Otherwise Award Honor List as a ‘sharp collection of Afro-Surrealist work’. Eugen’s creative work has appeared worldwide, including in Award Winning Australian Writing, Fantasy Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction. Eugen has two new novels, a novella and three anthologies (ed) out in 2023, including Serengotti, a novel, and the US release of Danged Black Thing. Visit her website at eugenbacon.com and Twitter feed at @EugenBacon