What Makes a Good Horror Story

Beautiful young woman reading book under bed cover and holding a flashlight.

I know that everyone has their own idea of scary. But let’s face it, we’ve all been there. You sit down with a “horror novel” and a few chapters later you’re ripping it up to use in the fireplace. The story is too slow and the plot has been done a thousand times. Does anyone want another story about the tortured vampire falling in love with a mortal, and then turning them (even though they swore they never would) after a zillion chapters so they can “be together for eternity”? Anyone? Anyone? Neither do I. People want a page-turner. The up all night, clutching the blanket, paper cuts everywhere kind of book! (or draining the battery after plowing through an e-book, depending on your preference).

For a book to scare you, the author has to really have some imagination and talent. They don’t have the advantage of special effects to get you with. They have to set the mood! Kind of like the old Gothic novels.  Describe it for me. Make me feel it and smell it. Creep me out so I want to know more. Personally, I like it when the story is told in the first person..  I love when an author can make me feel someone’s emotions. If I can put myself in their shoes, I feel like it draws me into the story more. Make me care. It doesn’t matter whether I’m rooting for the heroes or the monster, as long as I’m into it.

Take Edgar Allan Poe for example, one of my absolute favorites.  A prime example of an author that can set the mood!  If you haven’t read his work, do it!  (whatever you were forced to read in school doesn’t count) It’s dark, Gothic, and all doom and gloom. He makes you feel like life back then was nothing but old, smoky, dirty villages, and life was in black and white.   This isn’t a slasher coming up the stairs horror. This is deep psychological horror. Till you almost feel insane. He likes to write in the first person to really get his readers into the mindset of the protagonist.

Then there’s my other favorite, Stephen King.  He can take anything and turn it into a monster: kids, animals, an entire town (poor Derry, Maine!).  He also likes to use people’s everyday fears against them! If you have a phobia he’s going to make it worse.  Even something like a car accident can become something scary in his hands. He’s excellent at description.  In one paragraph he will give you a crystal clear picture of what’s happening. And he’ll string you along in the process. He likes a good low build!  Sometimes he can be a bit wordy, but then he sneaks up and smacks you with a good scare!

Clive Barker is another author who really messes with one’s head.  There’s nothing he shys away from.  His books are gory and full of things like obsession, pain, fantasy, and sexuality, all mixed in with a healthy dose of humanity.  He doesn’t write typical horror stories. You get fantasy worlds, alternate realities, and evil secret societies.  And when he describes things, it’s down to the last grotesque, perverse detail.  Don’t read him right before bed!

If I can’t stop reading or thinking about a story, the author has done his job. The more I talk about a book, the better I thought it was. I want to be afraid of the sound of my cat in the litterbox and be talking about the book before I finish it. What about you? Tell me how an author can make you run for mommy in the middle of the night.