If You Give a Girl a Pumpkin…: On using horror in writing

There’s nothing like the earthy scent of dry leaves on a crisp breeze against a backdrop of vermillion, gold, and deep azure to make me want to take the kids to the pumpkin patch. That was our big excursion this past weekend. Four, huge Jack-o-lanterns-in-waiting later, and suddenly I wanted to put up Halloween decorations. We strung up a few lines of orange and purple lights, set a couple of ghosts dangling from the tree in the front yard, and hauled the skeletons out of the closet (literally). Well, of course that put me in the mood to crave a good chill down my spine.

And to wonder, once again, whether I have what it takes to send a good chill down someone else’s…?

I read the occasional horror story, but I don’t write that genre. I’ve tried, but it’s just not what flows out naturally when I type. However, that’s not to say I eschew the available tools from any and all genres in order to generate savory nuggets of tension that compel readers to keep turning pages. Horror can be particularly helpful with this.

Several years ago I attended a workshop led by horror author Mario Acevedo. He defined horror as, “the juxtaposition of the macabre against the familiar.” I love that definition. It distills the nature of horror down to simplicity. I can work with it then:

A love sonnet painted on a wall… in blood.

The sight of an unfamiliar man’s face… while a woman is looking in her mirror.

A town fountain… full of dead birds.

Another way to achieve the twist of macabre-against-familiar is by character reaction. Yes, your character would have to react to the above scenarios, but those are more objectively creepy, even without being in a character’s head. However, sometimes you can take an ordinary situation and make it tingle-worthy just by the way in which your character responds to it. This is something I’ve tried to work on more, because if I can do it correctly, my readers get the full-fledged, wind-in-their faces rollercoaster ride, no matter what I write. So let’s see if I can effectively twist these otherwise-ordinary scenarios and give you a chill.

Autumn leaves blowing across the ground:
The scritch-scratch of dry leaves against the asphalt raked against Peter’s nerves, making him jump this way and that, until he’d identified for certain the cause of the sound.

Marital foreplay:
Her husband’s breath, hot against her face, reeked of meatballs and spaghetti mixed with his own, unique odor. Her stomach recoiled as he pressed her harder against the wall, forced his thick lips next to her ear, and slurred, “You’re going to be my princess tonight, aren’t you?”

An operation:
The scalpel was a deadweight in his hand. Sweat trickled down his temple. The open torso became a jumbled mass of slimy entrails, metal retractors, and spidery, cancerous growth. And blood. So. Much. Blood.

Did it work? Did a shiver run down your spine? If you’d like to try to chill me back, you can use one of my three ordinary situations—autumn leaves blowing across the ground, marital foreplay, or an operation—or come up with one of your own. (Just be sure to state your ordinary situation before twisting it with horrified character-perception.) Otherwise, Happy Halloween!

7 thoughts on “If You Give a Girl a Pumpkin…: On using horror in writing

  1. Do you think I am foolish enough to mess with the mouse? No chill backs from me… well written post, I loved your examples. Macabre/Familiar… I like that. I will however, send you a story, to add to tomorrow.

  2. I thought the first couple examples were very good. They were subtle — like Poe. I also thought the leaves against the pavement scene worked. I did not find the meatballs or the entrails descriptions to be scary — just kind of gross. Hope you are well, Dawn! Keep writing:) I love you. –Matt

  3. I thought they were all good Dawn…lol…even the marital foreplay…I could imagine her revulsion smelling the meal on his breath…it wasn’t horror though, more like creepy! You seem to enjoy writing…have you joined the Writer’s Dock Party? It’s a group of writers who share ideas and story starts, advice, comments, etc…you would probably enjoy it!

    • Hi Maureen! 🙂 Glad you liked my samples. Yes, I love writing. I’d rather be writing than doing almost anything else. I’ve been part of a couple of writing groups, though hadn’t heard about the Writer’s Dock Party yet. Might have to go check it out…. I’m a member of absolutewrite.com (occasionally I post, mostly I stalk), and currently I’m part of a Fiction Relay started by The Reclining Gentlemang. Look for my chapter to be posted here in the next few days!

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