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Issue 73, July-September 2015
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Think Like a Horror Writer
by Josh Woods

​When Paulo Coelho said there are two types of stories, “the voyage of discovery — and a stranger comes to town” (Handler, Richard. “A Stranger Comes to Town.” CBC News. 19 May 2009. Web. 14 May 2014.), he was giving us a glimpse at the two main archetypes of story structure, Quest and Horror, and what’s most useful for a writer of literary fiction to note is that there is no need to confuse horror structure with horror content.

Here’s what I mean by that: A story about a vampire who comes into a rich family’s house on a stormy night to kill virtuous maidens sounds as though it uses the archetypal Horror structure (“a stranger comes to town,” and more, below) as well as using the content that makes up what we call the genre of horror. But we can remove that genre content—the monster, the killing, the big estate, the stormy weather, etc.—replace it with whatever unique or idiosyncratic content we want, and by doing so we can turn from the specifics of what the horror writer creates toward the method of how the horror writer thinks.

Take, for example, Raymond Carver’s classic short story “Cathedral.” A blind man—someone not quite as “normal” as the narrow-minded protagonist—comes into the house. The protagonist’s life has been on a downhill slide already, but now comes this Other who is using his Otherworldly experience and awareness to possess the protagonist’s wife and to challenge the basic, safe assumptions of the ordinary world, making life fall apart even faster. The protagonist’s revelation at the end is a vision of another kind of world than his own, through a Gothic cathedral. Although this story is in the world of an ’80s suburb so mundane that the cathedral is drawn on an old shopping bag that had just held onion skins, we have a complete and successful use of Horror structure. 

But why should writers of literary fiction try thinking like a Horror writer (“stranger comes to town”) over thinking like a Quest writer (“voyage of discovery”)? Part of what makes Quest and Horror the two main archetypal story structures is that they are fundamentally opposite. In Quest, the protagonist leaves the ordinary world, going into the Otherworld, and through this travel the protagonist gains allies and increases in ability. In Horror, the protagonist stays put, somehow confined, and the Other enters the ordinary world; in the resulting struggle, the protagonist, who is somehow at fault, declines and faces inevitable solitude. Literary fiction is generally more suited to the latter because otherwise, in Quest, once a journey starts and the protagonist defeats opponents and overcomes obstacles—even in a story without any adventure or action genre content—we start to lose the essence of literary fiction, which could be described, as Dave Eggers cunningly puts it, as “quotidian epiphany.” The literary Quest can indeed succeed—often through some manner of road trip—but the literary essence is so much easier to maintain when our protagonist stays put, and when his or her ordinary worldview is challenged by something Other.  

So what are fundamentals of thinking like a Horror writer? Very briefly: 

The Other
Implication, or Inevitability 

For the Horror writer, the protagonist is held in a single setting through the heart of the story. This can be a house (“Cathedral,” “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”), a grocery store (“A&P”), even a teenager make-out spot (“Greasy Lake”). Paired with implication (below), this can mean that the protagonist’s own lack of personal growth seems to physically imprison him or her, as in “Cathedral” with the (self-) unemployed and (self-) friendless protagonist, who has nowhere else to escape when the blind man comes.  

The Other
For the Horror writer, something inhuman enters the ordinary world. This can mean that someone comes into the story who is strange to the protagonist’s current understanding of what it means to be a normal human, and facing this or fending it off becomes crux of the protagonist’s struggle. For the writer of literary fiction, this offers the opportunity to highlight qualities in the protagonist through contrast against the Other. In “A&P,” Sammy can at first seem young and full of enviable promise compared to Stokesie, but when Queenie enters from some Otherworld of mid-day martini parties and elitist fashion sensibilities, Sammy by contrast is suddenly poor, clumsy, and doomed. 

For the Horror writer, the protagonist continually weakens. Where this is often literal in stories with horror content (weakness via limping on a bitten leg, dropping the last silver bullet, regressing into a monster, etc.), in literary fiction this can be figurative, through mistakes, loss of options, increasing immorality, and so on. The protagonist also weakens by losing friends or loved ones, which leads the protagonist into solitude, or, more negatively put, aloneness. For many writers of literary fiction, personal growth for a protagonist is based to some degree on empathy and community, and that allows the aloneness of the Horror structure to be a kind of little death or soft damnation, which can make a final revelation in the story all the more powerful.  

Implication, or Inevitability
For the Horror writer, the protagonist is somehow at fault. This can mean that the protagonist is at fault for the confinement, for the decline, and even for the Other entering the ordinary world. Implicating the protagonist has a couple of advantages for stories that use this part of Horror structure. First, much like the decline into aloneness, it can add power to the revelation that will end the story, or to the striking lack of a revelation that will end it. Second, it justifies the struggles that the protagonist goes through—the protagonist brought it all upon himself—as opposed to the protagonist’s being merely a passive victim of bad luck. 

When the Horror writer doesn’t want to implicate the protagonist for whatever reason, an alternative that can offer the same effect is inevitability. Here, the protagonist cannot escape fate, or the pull of the past. So while the protagonist may be innocent or virtuous, implications from the past, or even from humanity itself, play themselves out yet again in the struggle of the story. The advantage that inevitability provides is that it can turn the protagonist’s revelation at the end into an apocalypse, a new understanding about life that was in fact present all along and therefore should have been apparent all along. This can be as intense as the final cry in “Bartleby, the Scrivener,”—“Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”—or as subtle as Sammy’s “of course” in his final and inescapable loss of innocence into adulthood as he stands alone outside the A&P.

Ultimately, thinking like a Horror writer allows the writer of literary fiction to lean on the foundation of a universal storytelling archetype, which often draws the instinctual reaction out of readers that a “real story” has just been told. But thinking like a Horror writer also allows us to relax our worries over plot, narrative drive, and even theme coherence, and to let these concerns stand on their own, like a great scaffolding, so that we can be free to climb in all directions, free in space to explore those characters and images and unique subjects that we love so much at any angle and depth we wish, that kind of freedom from compromise and restraint that led us to become writers in the first place.  

Josh Woods is Editor of the fiction anthologies Surreal South ’13, The Book of Villains, and The Versus Anthology (all three books focusing on literary fiction with a horror slant). His work has appeared in The Nevada Review, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days, and Black and Grey Magazine, among other places. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee and winner of the Press 53 Open Awards in Genre Fiction. He graduated from the MFA program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and is currently an awarded Associate Professor of English in Illinois. He has also just completed his first full novel.