There’s a reason why some of the best horror films are those that focus more on unsettling the viewer than shocking them out of their seat. The family dinner scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Giger’s alien crawling around the vents of the Nostromo, the glimpses of the twins in The Shining: moments like this get under the viewer’s skin and linger long after the movie is over. A jump scare? It has an impact, but only for a moment — and it can never be recaptured.
Horror works the same way in books. Some authors like to put it all out there, painting a picture using shades of blood and viscera and leaving nothing to the imagination. For me, though, the novels that stick in the mind are those which offer just a sketch and leave it to us to add colour. This is Iser’s reader-response theory in full effect: the novel isn’t complete without us deriving our own unique brand of fear from it.
Here are four ways to hint at horror and leave the rest up to the reader.
The terror broadside — Jules Verne
Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1867) is a head trip. It has dinosaurs, lightning storms, draconian professors, bottomless pits, stoic Icelandic hunters and more. Despite the constant tension and adventure, though, there’s only really one paragraph that flirts with horror:
Leaning against the trunk of an enormous kauris stood a human being, a Proteus of those subterranean regions, a new son of Neptune, watching over that great herd of mastodons.
The shepherd was bigger than his flock. This was not something like the fossil creature whose corpse we had found in the ossuary; it was a giant capable of mastering those monsters. He was over twelve feet tall. His head, which was as big as a buffalo’s, was half hidden in the tangled growth of his unkempt hair — a positive mane, like that of the primitive elephant. In his hand he was brandishing an enormous bough, a crook worthy of this antediluvian shepherd. We had remained motionless and stupefied. But he might see us; we must take to our heels.
This is the only mention of the 12-foot man in the entire novel. The encounter had been teased, with Professor Lidenbrock and Axel previously finding the skull of a man, but up until that point the narrative had been geared firmly around thrilling the reader. Then, for seven or eight lines, we are abruptly thrust into a horror story.
Despite its brevity, the scene is unsettling because of how many questions it prompts: How many other humans are living under the earth like the shepherd? Are there communities? Nations? How did they get down there? Is Verne suggesting that we’re their descendants?
No answers are provided. Later on, Axel tells the reader it couldn’t have been a man and that he must have exaggerated the encounter. This only compounds the horror; why would Axel doubt his eyes, except to protect himself from his own discomfort?
Maybe the 12-footer proteans are down there right now, plotting their takeover of the earth.
The fear disguise — Lydia Davis
One of the most impressive short stories I’ve ever read is “French Lesson I: Le Meurtre”, which combines a French tutorial with a quotidian story that gradually spirals out of control. The genius here is that for at least half of the story, the reader is too busy grappling with the words in italics to pay too much attention to the story occurring around them. It isn’t until we reach the following passage that we begin to understand Davis has been misdirecting us, and that there is something below the surface:
Now the hired man swings open la barrière and les vaches amble across the barnyard, udders swaying, up to their hocks in la boue, nodding their heads and switching their tails. Now their hooves clatter across the concrete floor of la grange and the hired man swings la barrière shut. But where is le fermier? And why, in fact, is the chopping block covered with sang that is still sticky, even though le fermier has not killed un poulet in days?
Here, the horror has been disguised by the banal. This is the passage that prompts us to go back and read over the text again to see if we overlooked other snatches of information about the hired man and the farmer. And we have questions. Who exactly is the hired man? Where is the farmer? Why is the chopping block covered in blood? Whose blood is it?
Then the story changes tack again and continues with its French lesson. We remain wary, though as we learn about the similarities between poule, poulet and poultry, we begin to wonder whether we were jumping to conclusions. We read on, navigating an entire page discussing preposition usage, and by the end of that we’re ready to dismiss the scene with the hired man as having probably been nothing. Then Davis hits us with the ending:
Now you know the words la femme, dans and la cuisine, you will have no trouble understanding your first complete sentence in French: La femme est dans la cuisine.
The whereabouts of le fermier is more of a problem.
And finally a list of vocabulary:
Le sac: bag
La grive: thrust
La plume: feather
La hachette: hatchet
Le manche: handle
Le meurtre: murder
It’s definitely a story to read through more than once.
The dread-filled repetition — Cormac McCarthy
Okay, so The Road isn’t exactly a cheery holiday read anyway, but I want to draw attention to McCarthy’s fantastic use of repetition in one scene — perhaps the most awful in the novel — to build a sense of dread that has the reader desperate for the father to do as his son says:
There was nothing. The wind rustling the dead roadside bracken. A distant creaking. Door or shutter.
I think we should take a look.
Papa let’s not go up there.
This is followed a short while later by:
They went to the window and looked in.
What if there’s someone here, Papa?
There’s no-one here.
We should go, Papa.
We’ve got to find something to eat. We have no choice.
And then finally:
In the floor of this room was a door or hatch and it was locked with a large padlock made of stacked steel plates. He stood looking at it.
Papa, the boy said. We should go. Papa.
There’s a reason this is locked.
The boy pulled at his hand. He was almost in tears. Papa?
We’ve got to eat.
I’m not hungry, Papa. I’m not.
One word is used to great effect throughout this scene: Papa. Its repetition drives home the fragility of their situation: the man has to find food for his boy so he doesn’t starve, but the very act of looking for this food is putting his child at risk. McCarthy creates constant tension in The Road by having us empathise with the boy or the father, but rarely both at the same time. In this scene, we are firmly with the boy. He is terrified because his pleas fall on deaf ears, and so we are terrified. The more he says ‘Papa’ — a word that for him means ‘protection’ and ‘love’ and ‘good’ — the closer a terrible reality draws near. After a couple of pages of this we actually want the boy to be quiet; our nerves have been pulled too taut. We want to pretend the father knows what he’s doing and that the room he is hard at work breaking into contains a supply of food.
But McCarthy doesn’t let us pretend even for a moment.
The anxious build-up — Jon McGregor
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things is a delicate book taking place over the course of a single day that manages to juggle the perspectives of multiple characters living on an unremarkable street in middle England — and it does so while ratcheting up a sense of unease from the first chapter to the last.
Here’s how it starts:
He was the first to move, the boy from number eighteen. He was up and across the street before anyone had blinked, before anyone had made a sound […] I couldn’t understand what was happening, I couldn’t believe what was happening. I sat there, in the warm afternoon of the last day of summer, and I couldn’t work out what I was seeing.
Without being given any specifics, we understand something major has occurred, dramatic enough to perplex the narrator and send the boy from number eighteen running across the street. After this, the narrator recounts how a crowd forms. People swear, gasp, avert their gazes. A siren sounds in the distance. We do not know what has happened, but we know it can’t be good.
From here, McGregor presses the rewind button, and the rest of the novel is about the lives of the people on the street leading up to that moment (whatever it is). Some of the glimpses are romantic, others humorous, yet more nostalgic, but underpinning them all is a constant pulse of anxiety as we recall the initial scene and wonder which of these characters will be involved. McGregor’s gaze never strays too far from what is happening out on the road, either. The narrative often pauses to offer a passage like this:
Outside, the sound of a tennis ball bouncing in the road, a cricket bat banging against the tarmac, boys shouting, music passing in a car with a heartbeat thump.
And like this:
A car appears from the other end of the street and hoots at the milk crates, a car with tinted windows and gleaming hubcaps, a car with loud music padooming from inside. The oldest boy raises his hand and throws the ball back to the twins, he walks to the car and clasps the hands of each of the occupants in turn.
A shadow passes across the street, a faint imprint rolling briefly across the pavement and the tarmac, noticed only by the young daughter of the man with the aching hands.
As much as we might want to sink into the story of the man with the aching hands or the studious young man at number eighteen or the old couple at number twenty, we can’t; McGregor refuses to allow us to forget about the pivotal event. In the end, all we can do is keep going and hope we’re sufficiently prepared for the blow when it inevitably comes.