The Arte and Science of Terror

Water, water everywhere...

As you may be aware this month’s Pictonaut challenge has a distinctly spooky bent to it. What with October being all ghosts, witches and an assorted agglomeration of supernatural voodoo; something which skirts into the grey and slightly disconcerting borders of the horror genre. This, to me, is beginning to prove a greater challenge than I originally anticipated. The whole spooky horror business is something I’ve generally managed to avoid my entire writing life. The exact reason as to why is something of a mystery. There were a few instances at school where we were more or less instructed to write a horror story, I met it with my traditional feckless disrespect for the subject matter and wry, yet utterly surreal humour. At least I’d like to think that my humour is wry.

The first instance occurred when I was about twelve, my somewhat butch and burly English teacher gave us all a copy of the picture on the left. For those who are curious it’s an engraving by Gustave Doré, it depicts a scene from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where Life and Death play dice over the soul of the Mariner; a game to decide his ultimate fate. The task she set us was, to all intents and purposes, the same as the Pictonaut challenge, with the caveat that there wasn’t a word limit; we were twelve we didn’t have to worry about piddly things like word counts. The vast majority of the class focused and the dice, the grim Death like figure or the mysterious box that it holds in its hands (What’s in the box? For the love of God what’s in the box?!), it was very much the material we were supposed to produce. I wrote a story about an anthropomorphic death and his man-servant Cecil deciding to operating their own cruise liner, with hilarious consequences! (or so I thought at the time) There were some eerie parallels with the Death of Pratchett’s Discworld series, a fact made all the more bizarre by the simple fact that it would be another two years before I even discovered the existence of the Discworld books.

A second such instance occurred when I was about fifteen. This time the demands for horror were much more blatant. We were prepared for it by reading extracts from Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, I vaguely recall us watching some sort of horror film as well, but as to what it was? That memory escapes me. What I wrote bared only a passing resemblance to horror, and even then that was only because it bared some of the hallmarks of parody. It told the story of a Shoe Mason (that is what it sounds like, a man who builds shoes for people to live in) and his accidental encounter with an ineffably evil cloud of purple gas. All this took place on a giant yo-yo floating in space, orbited by a small rubix cube of a moon. This yo-yo had such fascinating cities as P.T.O., More-Over, and my particular favourite: Haddock-on-Haddock. We’d been asked to write three to four pages of horror, I wrote seven pages of overly surreal drivel. I got a D, I was not surprised.

I have never seen The Shining

My relationship with horror doesn’t end at a seeming inability to write it. It also extends to my reading material and the films I choose to watch. I’ve personally never really enjoyed the horror genre in any of its forms. It’s not the whole scare factor that bothers me, well not during the film or the reading anyway. It’s always what happens afterwards, when the film’s done or the book’s read. I am cursed with an incredibly over-active and paranoid imagination. Even the blandest of horror will have me jumping at shadows for months afterwards. It is not a feeling I particularly enjoy. I am, in essence, a perfect example of how good horror should act on a normal person, except in my case it’s any horror and I’m far from normal. Despite the fact that I should know how to start yanking the big red level marked “ABJECT TERROR” that dwells in all our minds, in attempting The Writing on the Wall I’ve had some difficulty transferring this to the page. I understand that there’s got to be some aspect of suspense, with just a soupçon of mystery; a small seed which with the water of the reader’s imagination grows into an all-consuming terror, an ambivalence of wanting to know, and screaming for the mercy of ignorance. Or something along those sort of lines. I think my lack of exposure to horror has left me without some of the necessary tools, without a good catalogue of examples of format it’s quite tricky to make the story a genuine horror-fest. Due to this deficit I’ve adopted the only vein of the genre that I’m familiar with, one pioneered by good old Mr Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

His appearance is as terrifying as his work

I’m not sure whether Lovecraft’s work really falls into the horror genre. Part of me thinks it does, but another part thinks it’s something else entirely, something so utterly bizarre and beyond reason  and sense as to really defy classification. But I’m sure we’ll all agree it’s a little bit spooky. How well the Lovecraftian approach will work for me I don’t know, as I’m still at the stage of building the foundations of the plot, setting the scene, framing the picture, verbing the noun. I’ll hopefully find out as soon as it really starts to get going, I think the idea I have has got legs and the potential to run and run. Should things work out I can see it easily spiralling towards the 2k mark. It’s once again just the problem of building to the point where I can unleash all the really good bits I’ve got swirling around in my noggin. And if it slides into a literary disaster I’ll just have to call it a learning experience. Unless it’s really bad, then I’ll just promise never to write anything like it ever again.

About The Rogue Verbumancer

A chemistry graduate consumed by the demons of apathy and disinterest. Likes tea and cheese. Sleeps less than he should. View all posts by The Rogue Verbumancer

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