Inevitably, when people find out just how deep my interest in reading and writing short horror stories goes, they ask, “Why are you so interested in short horror stories?”
The underlying message usually being that it is 1) a bit abnormal to be so fascinated with something that has a stigma of the darker side of human nature, and 2) that short horror stories are an inferior and baser form than, say, horror movies and horror novels.
Of course, I would like to explain and hopefully dispel these misconceptions a bit. More importantly, I would hope to expand the reader’s understanding of the many intriguing facets of the art of crafting a truly good short horror story. Call it “Short Horror Appreciation 101”. Who knows, maybe the reader will even look at short horror stories in a new light and appreciate them the way I do.
I must first address the issue of the sinister, dark, ugly, and evil side of our world and just why it is that the subject matter of so much horror stories explores this taboo region of our reality. For the dark is, in the end, a natural part of our reality no matter our level of disdain or fascination.
In philosophy and religion the debate rages on concerning the fundamental nature of good and evil and how they influence our morals and lives. The view that good and evil exists as independent forces outside of any sentient, intelligent being is the foundation of many beliefs and belief systems. It provides the backbone of religion and the existence of the moral law. However, the arguments against such an independent existence of these forces are much stronger and closer to what science has revealed about the inner workings of nature.
My personal belief is that good and evil are largely creations of the relationships of individuals and societies and rests in the nature of intelligent beings struggling to understand their place in the cosmos. No person is wholly good or wholly evil. Every person possesses the capacity of both within their nature just as the cosmos possesses the potential of both to arise within itself. We are mirrors of the cosmos and express the same processes on a more microscopic level.
Therefore, it is completely natural for humans to explore their nature and since the dark nature is a part of that, it follows that humans will always be compelled to explore their darker nature just as they shall always explore the good. This is evident everywhere in society and expresses itself on many levels across a broad spectrum. Our curiosity is bent in this direction through the media, our entertainment, in businesses, in sports, in our religions, and on and on. After all, most great stories are incomplete without the tension created by the villain.
Many religious people warn that such explorations lead, inexorably, to a possession by evil forces. While they are entitled to their beliefs, I find these beliefs childish and ignorant. Arguments as to how I can prove this would entail a whole other essay. Let me just say that I don’t believe in Heaven, Hell, Satan, the God of the Bible, angels, demons, or any such similar fanciful mythologies.
I do believe that there are dangers in being wholly obsessed with just evil and leading or justifying a decadent and immoral life. But reading and writing short horror stories is just an outlet for the expression of the darker side of our nature. It is the same as listening to music, watching movies, or playing video games where you temporarily escape into a fantasy realm.
If these things really caused people to be evil then we would expect to see everyone who played Doom to be gun wielding maniacs, everyone who had read Misery to be crazed torturers, and everyone who listened to Black Sabbath to be swelling the ranks of Satanic churches across the globe. These things may be influences on people bent on doing evil but they are definitely not causes of evil. Conversely, if exposure to goodness and religion were guarantees of a person being good then we wouldn’t see priests raping young boys or evangelists lying about their sexual deviance.
As to the view that short horror stories are a lesser art form than other styles of writing or other forms of horror, I hold the opinion that it is a very unique art form when executed well. Unfortunately, in the current marketplace, it is neither popular nor frequently executed well.
Most authors feel and succumb to the pressure to write novel length works in order to gain attention. There just isn’t a market for anthologies of short horror stories by individual authors, so the publishers push authors to write novels.
This is fine but another problem has arisen in the pulp style, trade magazines because of this. It used to be that magazines were the place that featured short stories as the ends and means of themselves. But now, the magazines are just a place to prostitute the author trying to sell their novel. The authors generally churn out a sub-par short story so they can market their novel in the introductory blurb to the story.
Judged on the merits of the short story alone, they fall far short of the benchmark set by such luminaries as Poe, Lovecraft, Bierce, Blackwood, and James. Oft times the most horrible thing about their story is the plot.
Horror’s goal is to elicit feelings of fear in the reader. Fear is a very powerful emotion that causes very tangible physiological and psychological reactions. It is this goal that must be in the forefront of the author’s mind as he or she writes.
Of course, there are many tools at the author’s disposal with which to accomplish this task: atmosphere, plot, language, word usage, imagery, tempo, situation, character development, the list goes on and on.
What makes the short horror story unique, however, is that it is a perfect vehicle for tension that rises and rises until the end of the story – whether or not the end releases the tension or only serves to leave the tension unresolved. Usually, the story can be read at one or two sittings whereas a novel has a tougher time sustaining this type of continually rising tension (although there are some exceptions).
A novel is generally better suited for character development because there is more space and time to create a bond with the character. Horror movies share the shortness of the short horror story and have an added benefit of direct imagery. Some think this to be better but it isn’t always the case. Many readers have quite inventive imaginations and their interpretations are varied and more terrifying than a movie might portray.
The area where a short horror story is better than a movie is in the psychological realm. Movies just can’t relay the thoughts in a character’s head as well as a first or third person narrator. A movie draws the viewer’s attention primarily to visual things and reading draws the reader’s attention to primarily whatever the author deems necessary at the time to making the story successful.
All of my preaching from atop my soapbox is fine and good but the real proof is in the pudding. After quite extensive reading of hundreds and hundreds of short horror stories I can point to a whole slew of stories where the author fully grasped the keys to creating a truly successful short horror story that can stand alone as a true work of art that both explores the dark side of our nature and creates a very real sense of fear in the reader.