Thursday, April 17, 2008


Having read quite a bit of fiction in my life, I tend to view it in a different manner as time passes. Many years ago, I remember reading horror stories, finding them engaging, and they were usually "page turners." But I'm not sure something ever occurred in a story or novel that startled me or suddenly scared me - causing me to have a physical reaction, like someone sneaking up behind and yelling "Boo!" Rather, I found myself disturbed by the novels, or I had images lurking in my mind. This would be something like watching the film Jaws, and then having a fear of the water. Except, Jaws, like most films, has the ability to "surprise" the viewer - the "Boo!" factor. I wonder if that is possible in fiction. And by that I mean sudden surprise. Certainly fiction has the ability to produce the unexpected, but what about doors opening with something jumping out, or a hand resting upon a character's shoulder. In film, that would cause some one to stir or jump or even scream. Is this possible in fiction? I'd imagine someone has experienced it.

This probably seems like a strange question coming from someone who writes in the genre. But after a while, either through reading or writing, some of the unexpected aspects are lost. Or, it might be that horror fiction can disturb or unsettle a reader, but maybe not create a startling surprise that causes the reader to jump out of his or her seat. Or, maybe this is something I simply have lost over time.

For those interested, this topic contrasts well with a previous post: Horror: What scares us and why do we like it so much?

What brings this topic to mind is that at conventions, I often hear readers asked for the "scariest" books or stories. This, in turn, makes me wonder about what I've just been rambling about.


Jeff Edwards said...

Personally, I don't believe I've ever experienced the "Boo!" scare while reading. Unless perhaps I was so involved in reading the book that I was startled when someone walked into the room!

The "Boo!" scare is generally looked down upon in horror movies as a cheap scare tactic. The howling cat appearing from nowhere accompanied by a spike in the soundtrack volume is a perfect example.

As far as unsettling or disturbing novels go, I would rank Matheson's HELL HOUSE at the top. I do remember reading that one late at night and thinking, "This story is really unpleasant."


Charles Gramlich said...

Only a few books have scared me, and it wasn't the sudden surprise but the effect of beginning to notice the shadows and sounds around me. Ghost Story and "The Haunting of Hill House" were two that did. Jaws had a pretty good effect as well, though I think that was more the movie.

I agree that it's hard to surprise the reader with a "hand from the dark" sort of thing, although on occassion I've gotten a pretty good surprise from a book, like with Silence of the Lambs.

For me, more, it is the unsettling imagery and the feeling that there's more behind the story, more that needs to be told, perhaps much that is even more horrible.

William Jones said...

Jeff - You're right about the cheap film trick of causing people to jump. But it is an easy one for film makers to go for. While I didn't have such a moment when watching The Exorcist, I was certainly unsettled. There are many elements in that film that produce the effect, but the child in such a predicament seemed to me horrifyingly. The book did this as well. Now perhaps I was "jumpy" after reading the book. :)

Charles - You hit on quite a few stories and films that worked for me in the same way. And I mentioned this topic because it always comes up when someone asked me about horror writing - wondering what book is the "scary one." I think some of this might come from film watching. For me, in fiction, the horror is created by my connection with the characters and what they experience. If I don't care about the characters, it is all the more difficult for me to feel any emotion in the story.