The Craft is a column that explores the writing process, each month focusing on a different aspect of the craft. This month I asked Mercedes M. Yardley, the author of Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu: A Tale of Atomic Love and Beautiful Sorrows, about writing horror. Here’s what she had to say…
James Aquilone: What is the surest way of scaring the bejesus out of a reader?
Mercedes M. Yardley: I think the surest way to scare the reader is to write something that scares yourself. If you’re writing with that sense of terror, the reader will pick up on it. I’m scared of losing my children. I’m scared of being cut with knives. These are themes that show up in my work, and even if you aren’t afraid of being sliced and diced like I am, hopefully you’ll feel that sense of foreboding because I do.
We’re all afraid. We’re all human animals, and fear is hardwired into our genes. As an author, exploit that.
JA: What are the particular challenges/pitfalls to writing horror as opposed to other genres?
MMY: Horror is still stigmatized. And it makes me want to scream with frustration because horror is everywhere and it’s become almost mainstream. The Walking Dead? American Horror Story? Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Yet when you say that you write horror, people say, “Oh, I don’t read that.” Neil Gaiman is in several horror anthologies and people don’t typically peg him as a horror writer.
I feel people in the horror industry have to work harder to be taken seriously.
JA: What is your process when developing a villain or monster? What makes a great baddie?
MMY: A great baddie needs to be strong enough for the hero to pit his or herself against. But my favorite thing is to see their humanity, to see that they really aren’t all that different from us. There but for the grace of God go I.
Take Hannibal Lecter, who is my favorite villain of all time. He’s intelligent. He has his own set of rules about who he does and doesn’t take. He enjoys the finer things in life. He’s horrifically lonely, and if you read the book Hannibal, you’ll see that. (The movie bypasses it completely.) He’s formidable, but there’s something to feel compassionate about. I like to root for the bad guys. They’re usually more interesting than the heroes, in a sense.
My process is to find a regular baddie and then The Big Bad. I have a novel where the friendly serial killer is the baddie, sure. But there’s a bigger, darker baddie that is more powerful than him. The desert itself, with its murderous tendencies, is even worse than the baddie. It’s the ultimate Big Bad. You have something to fear, and standing behind it is something even more terrifying.
JA: Horror is full of clichés. How do you avoid them, subvert them? What are some clichés you’d like to see disappear?
MMY: Sometimes you subvert them, but sometimes you don’t. Cliches become clichés because they’re originally powerful.
But it’s fun to turn things on their head. I know you do misunderstood zombies. I have a story where the serial killer is a little awkward, friendly, and likable. A member of my writer’s group once said, “I don’t want the main character to die, but I like this killer so much! I just want him to have what he wants!” That’s what I like to do. See if you can make Jack the Ripper sympathetic. Take the trope and see what you can do with it.
I’m tired of shambling zombies. I was tired of them two years ago, and now I just want to gouge my eyes out whenever a stereotypical zombie story comes across my desk. It takes all of my willpower not to reach for the letter opener.
JA: How do you gauge when to show the gore and when to let readers use their imagination?
MMY: I’m a fan of less gore and more imagination. Sometimes I feel like the extreme gore is almost talking down to the reader. “Here, you won’t understand what I’m saying unless the writing is on the wall…painted in blood.” Of course, that’s my personal taste. There are a lot of people who are into extreme horror and find it quite exciting.
I like nuance. Letting the reader fill in the details according to what terrifies them personally. You can say a lot with just a few well-placed details. Mentioning somebody slipping in blood, or somebody wearing long gloves made of blood, perhaps. If their eye is hanging by a stalk, say so. Don’t be afraid of it. But don’t go into such loving detail of the gore that you slow the story down. That’s the main way to gauge.
MMY: I think horror writers are some of the friendliest, most well-adjusted people in the business. It’s therapy, in a sense. We get to take all of our fears and write them down. More than that, we get to discuss them openly. It’s healing, in a way.
That said, the human soul is absolutely horrifying. We’re capable of so much. Sometimes it’s necessary to step away. I know a lot of writers who take horror sabbaticals. Read something funny. Watch something light. Go to their kid’s baseball game. Balance the dark with the light. The good thing is that we don’t need to be completely engrossed in our work all of the time. There are plenty of other aspects to life, as well.
It’s necessary to step away every now and then. If you don’t, you go mad.
JA: How do you create a creepy atmosphere?
MMY: For me, creepy atmosphere comes from seeing something unexpected. Dolls are adorable. Dolls that move by themselves are not. Things that are out of place are disconcerting. A brick wall is normal. A wall with something swimming under the brick is not. Take something that should be comforting and make it so it isn’t a comfort anymore. Rend that feeling of stability. That’s creepy.
JA: Can you scare someone and make them laugh? How do you strike a balance between humor and horror?
MMY: There actually is a humorous horror genre, and it’s pretty difficult to strike that balance. At the same time, I think fear and laughter go remarkably hand in hand. People laugh when they’re scared. They laugh when they’re nervous. And it makes you feel better. A scary situation with clever dialogue is absolutely golden. It takes the nerves and makes the discomfort more palatable. One of my favorite examples of this is Dean Koontz’s “Tick Tock.” The protagonist is being chased by a hideous little doll. It’s frightening. But the dialogue is laugh-out-loud hilarious.
JA: Do you think happy endings have a place in horror?
MMY: Of course they do. Especially since “happy endings” are relative. If the entire town burns, beloved people are being murdered left and right, but the protagonist and her love escape…is that happy? I’d say yes. Others might disagree. But horror mirrors real life. There’s no such thing as a completely happy ending. People we love are taken from us. We experience sorrow, sometimes so much sorrow that we can hardly stand under the crushing weight of it. But there’s still joy. We find those joyful moments. I think stories are like that, as well. And it’s always nice to have something good happen to the characters in the end. After all, they’ve been put through the grinder. Sometimes literally.
JA: Share with us any writing exercises to help improve one’s horror writing.
MMY: Read. Write. I think the best exercise is to allow yourself to be scared. Dim the lights. Light a candle. Listen to some music with a dark ambiance. Don’t allow yourself to be disturbed. Then probe those parts of your mind and memory that you don’t normally allow yourself to go. Do you know what’s scary? Truth. Reality. The tiny details that you try to forget. The way something smelled. The way that somebody’s voice cracked when they told you something you didn’t want to hear. Feel these details. Write them down. Use them for story fodder. And remind yourself that you don’t have to stay here in this vulnerable place for long. Remind yourself that you’re safe. And after you glean all of the details you can from your memories of what frightens you, turn the lights back on. Hug your family. Turn yourself back to life.