An online dictionary provides three definitions of hallmark:

  1. ( Brit ) an official series of marks, instituted by statute in 1300, and subsequently modified, stamped by the Guild of Goldsmiths at one of its assay offices on gold, silver, or platinum (since 1975) articles to guarantee purity, date of manufacture, etc.;
  2. a mark or sign of authenticity or excellence; and
  3. an outstanding or distinguishing feature

In using the word as part of the title for three interconnected essays on the fundamentals of horror, to a certain degree, I had all three in mind.

The least relevant, of course, is the first; yet even there, there is a touch of what I meant by the word. There are no “official marks” to identify “authentic” horror; if there were, selecting which books to read would be infinitely easier. There are, however, certain authors whose reputations very nearly constitute “official” recognition as contemporary masters of the genre: Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, Robert R. McCammon, Joe R. Lansdale (all among my favorites), and a number of others.

More to the point, these writers and others that could be enumerated by any readers of this essay consistently reflect the second and third definitions, in that they consciously use—and at the same time adroitly re-imagine, re-design, and re-vamp—certain key elements of horror, its “outstanding or distinguishing feature(s).”

For my purposes, I have selected three: location, isolation, and language. There are other characteristics of horror, to be sure; but these three embody specific strengths that occur in the most effective tales.

 

Part One: Location

A recent Amazon review of Michaelbrent Collings’ The Haunted contained the following comment:

OMG… what an amazing level of originality !!! A house on a hill, abandoned, for years (well, it’s been done before). Young family moves in and starts seeing things. Wow… that had never been done before… only in every single horror movie and book out there. Things that go bump in the night, shadows moving, the radio turns itself on and off… WOW… BORING. BORING. BORING.

 

In spite of the fact that Michaelbrent is my son and that I enjoyed reading The Haunted, this comment made me stop and think. Having done so, I decided to take issue with it, since there were a number of flaws inherent in it, some obvious, some less so.

Among the obvious ones: triple exclamation marks to make certain that readers catch the otherwise undistinguished moment of sarcasm; ambiguous ellipses confusing where sentences might or might not end; screaming capitals that contradict their own content.

More troublesome, however, is an underlying flaw. The reviewer castigates the book for doing precisely what horror/ghost stories are supposed to do. It is rather like someone objecting to a novel about clowns because it takes place in a circus. Or complaining that a Tarzan novel uses the jungle as a landscape. It makes me wonder why the reviewer picked up the book in the first place.

Note the first point of support: “A house on a hill, abandoned, for years (well, it’s been done before).”

Of course it’s been done before. In fact, it is more difficult to find ghost stories that do not begin in an isolated place—far from the protective arms of a network or support system, avoided by the locals but appealing for whatever reason to the new people, the victims of the haunting—than otherwise. By virtue of its underlying themes, its cast of characters living and dead, its obsession with separating a small group—often but not always a young couple—and testing them to the limits of their endurance and often their sanity, the ghost story requires a specific landscape.

Dean Koontz quite properly refers to that landscape, ubiquitous in horror, as The Bad Place.

The Bad Place does not have to be an old, decrepit house standing far from the normal commerce of society, but it frequently is. The reasons for this, I think, come easily enough. In the most effective horror, evil needs a focal point, a nexus. It is difficult for a writer to control an all-pervasive terror; if there is no place to escape from and no sanctuary to escape to, there is little point in the story. And even when the terror seems omnipresent, as in a novel such as Koontz’s Phantoms or King’s It, it still has a single point of focus…in both stories, the unmapped depths beneath the city streets. Whichever way they turn, characters seem doomed.

In effective horror, escaping from is often more important than escaping to; flight from the Bad Place often takes precedence over describing a place of safety. And the more spine-tingling the Bad Place is, the greater the terror it engenders, the more critical it is that the characters escape.

In many cases, the Bad Place is primarily the haunt of evil; in and of itself, it is neutral. Yet even this can be misleading. With the passage of years, the place takes on the character of its resident evil, mirroring and echoing it, until the differences between place and source of evil become blurred.

In my first horror novel, The House Beyond the Hill, the eponymous house is morally neutral, at least at first. It is not so much abandoned as a low-cost, dilapidated rental chosen as a refuge by a young man haunted by external terror and by his memories. As the novel progresses and the evil encompasses him, his physical surroundings—the house—alter to reflect what happens to him inwardly and outwardly. By the end, the house exudes a stench of evil, as well as a literal stench, that warns intruders of just how much is amiss there. The house parallels the degeneration of the evil itself.

Similarly, in both Static! and Shadow Valley, the house begins as a neutral. In the first, it is merely an old residence in an established suburban community in Southern California, fundamentally no different than others in the neighborhood. What differentiates it from them, however, is the person—The Greer—who has lived and died there and whose personality remains embedded within it. She is evil; her goals were and are evil; and she systematically sets about to destroy the sole inheritor after her death. The house, no matter how much it is altered by her during her life, remains neutral.

In Shadow Valley, the house is a farm house, old, distanced from the larger community, inhabited by the sole remaining member of a once-prosperous family. It is not to be feared for itself but rather for the secrets it contains and the essence that pervades it. Horrific things happen in the house, yet the house itself is not to blame. It is merely the physical landscape within which this particular evil has chosen to concentrate its hatred.

In other instances, the house is itself evil, more than just a temporary habitation for evil. To cite a classic example, Shirley Jackson’s Hill House does not need an external stimulus for evil to occur. It seeks to meet its own needs, and in doing so destroys anything in its way.

In one of my most successful horror novels, The Slab, the house involved is a Southern California tract house, no different in layout than those surrounding it. It is not abandoned, although it does not sell for some years after its completion; it is not old, at least not at the beginning, when it is barely finished; it is not isolated, other than by the fact that it stands at the end of a typical suburban cul-de-sac and that neighbors, wary of the history of deaths within, do not willingly approach it. Yet from the beginning, it is evil. It is tainted by a single vicious action while its foundations are being laid, and from that act comes the horrors that destroy lives over a period of decades. There is no lingering ghost, per se, that haunts each new owner; instead, the house itself systematically changes them, enhancing their own predilections for evil, altering their perceptions of themselves and those around them, and ultimately killing at its own pleasure.

Either Bad Place can be highly effective. The point is that there generally needs to be one location, set aside, isolated, not in itself overtly threatening, in which evil can either breed or find a dwelling.

There are exceptions to these suggestions, of course. The ever-popular Zombie Apocalypse rarely centers in a single Bad Place; for Joe McKinney, most of south-eastern Texas and parts or Louisiana and Alabama are, collectively, the Bad Place. Yet even so, within individual stories or novels, there tends to be a single locus, a city, a building, a hospital, a police headquarters, from which the evil spreads…and a single point at which the survivors struggle to escape.

It is difficult, to take an opposite extreme, to imagine a horror novel set entirely at a well-attended, communal Fourth-of-July picnic in an open park at the center of town, where there are no shadows, no hidden rooms where secrets lie unburied, no place for the uninvited. If a ghost appeared, everyone would have to see it. If a monster of any sort emerged (from whence, it might be difficult to say), the slaughter would be wholesale, and, since the entire narrative takes place in the middle of the day, everyone would know what the creature looks like.

No mystery, no chills of anticipation…no horror.

When Michaelbrent begins The Haunted with these words,

The house sat atop a hill.

It had sat there for many years, and as far as anyone knew, would sit there for many more. Visitors would occasionally travel the long path to see it. They would shiver, and wrap their coats tightly around them if it was winter. If it was summer, they would shiver and wish they were wearing a coat in the first place…,

he is not succumbing to cliché or triteness. He is consciously building on the foundation of traditional horror, embracing its fundamental trope, and assuring readers of what is to follow: ghosts, apparitions, threats, incipient death, unknown chills and terrors….all emanating from or congregating at the Bad Place.

Michael R. Collings is the Senior Publications Editor for JournalStone Publishing; an Emeritus professor of English from Pepperdine University; author of the best-selling horror novels The Slab and The House Beyond the Hill, as well as other novels and collections of short fiction, poetry, and literary essays; and an inveterate fan of all things grammatical and syntactical. His writing are available here, at starshineandshadows.com, at journalstone.com, and at hellnotes.com.