Learn from the Horror Masters

Over the past few months, I’ve suggested a few ways you can go about writing your own horror work, including looking at monsters, and locations. However I’ve purposefully left the best until last – learning from how the professionals do it! Naturally there are some authors more synonymous with horror than others, and I’ve purposefully left out HP Lovecraft, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, and Edgar Allan Poe because they’re so well known, but here are five authors I think you should definitely check out, although there are many, many more that you can discover!

MR James

Montague Rhodes James died in 1936, and left behind a whole host of creepy stories, particularly those starring ghosts. Many earlier writers used familiar Gothic tropes, and James put his own stamp on the genre by taking those tropes and placing them into contemporary settings, although he’s often criticised for a somewhat formulaic approach to his writing, since many of his protagonists are professors (so was he, so he was ‘writing what he knew’). Obviously these stories read as ‘outdated’ now, as we look back on them from the twenty-first century, but you can learn a lot from his pacing and characterisation, as skeptics become believers following horrible experiences. He’s perhaps best known for “The Mezzotint”, “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” and “Lost Hearts”, and both the BBC and ITV made adaptations of his stories. “Casting the Runes” was the inspiration for  Night of the Demon (1957), starring Dana Andrews, which later inspired Sam Raimi’s godawful Drag Me To Hell (2009). Most recently, Mark Gatiss directed a new version of “The Tractate Middoth” for the BBC in 2013. You can download Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Part 2: More Ghost Stories here.

Shirley Jackson

Born in 1916, Shirley Jackson is perhaps most famous for her short story of 1948, called “The Lottery” (which you can read here), and The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which was adapted in 1963 as The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise. I highly recommend the film as a study in how to generate tension without showing a monster, but the novel is equally instructive. Just 48 when she died, Jackson left behind a huge legacy in Hill House, and its redefinition of the haunted house. Previous houses were haunted by spectral entities, but for Jackson, the house WAS the ghost. Even if you read nothing else by her, make sure you check out “The Lottery” (the publication of which earned her hate mail) and The Haunting of Hill House. There’s an air of psychological vulnerability in Hill House which sets it apart from other haunted house novels, and this air of ‘otherness’ also appears in We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962).

Stephen King

You can’t write a list about influential horror novelists and not include Stephen King. Born in 1947, King has published over fifty novels since 1973. His horror novels encompass such a wide range of subgenres, from vampires (Salem’s Lot) to the Devil (Needful Things), via stalkers (Misery), aliens (IT and The Tommyknockers), psychokinesis (Carrie) and other psychic gifts (The Shining).  In The Shining, King also investigated the haunted house genre, setting up his story on an epic scale, with his ‘haunted house’, the Overlook Hotel, becoming an extra character in the story. Some of his ideas are better than others, but even in his terrible books, his characterisation sets him apart. These are people you want to follow, who could live next door to you. While his narratives occasionally venture into absurdity (Rose Madder), his short stories are instructive exercises for anyone wanting to get started in writing horror shorts.

Richard Matheson

Many know the name, if not his work, but Matheson, born in 1926, has written plenty of material that’s worth a look. He’s perhaps best known as the author of I Am Legend, published in 1954, but he also wrote short stories, as well as episodes of The Twilight Zone. You know the famous one where William Shatner sees a monster on the wing of the aeroplane in which he’s flying? Yep, that was Matheson. He also wrote A Stir of Echoes (1958), Hell House (1971), and What Dreams May Come (1978), all of which have been adapted by Hollywood. He didn’t just write horror, and has plenty of genres to his name, and that’s why he’s worth a look – you might see elements of your own genre within his work, and you can see how you might turn that towards the direction of horror.

Clive Barker

Bringing horror back to Britain, Barker was born in Liverpool in 1952, and is an author, film director, video game designer and visual artist. Perhaps best known for Hellraiser and Candyman, it’s his Books of Blood anthologies that I want to highlight here. The short story format is an excellent training ground for new horror writers, and its within these stories that you can really see Barker explore his ideas around other worlds existing alongside our own. He doesn’t shy away from visceral body horror, and his work can often be more gruesome than the other writers I’ve mentioned here. Still, I think his visual style, even within his short stories, bears examination, and seeing the way that he indulges his rampant imagination can be a great ‘unblocker’ for creativity. He describes his style as being “dark fantasy” but he easily belongs in the horror camp.

Have you read any of these authors?