THREE HALLMARKS OF HORROR: Part III (Language)

Again and again as I write horror and write about horror, I am reminded of the simple fact that horror, like all fiction, is created by words. It is literally a ‘shaping’ or a ‘forming’, as one might mold clay. Writers take the words that are a commonplace of their society or culture and ‘shape’ from them something different, something new—a nova, as it were, from which we get the word novel.

As true as this is of fiction in general, there is something unusual that happens with language in horror and its (putatively) related cousins, fantasy and science fiction.

Mainstream fictions, along with most genre fictions (including romance, mystery, western, etc.) depend upon a close relationship between the story being told—and the words used to tell it—and the readers’ perceived reality. Historical novels rely on data that will convince readers that this story could have happened in a world in which the contextual events did happen. Romance and western writers depend on readers connecting a specific language set—be it dialect or narrative voice—to accept whole-heartedly the fact that in their world, or in one manifestation of it, these events might happen.

Horror, and to a lesser degree fantasy and science fiction, works differently.

Fantasy may generate its own vocabulary to name things and events, but in doing so it nevertheless accepts the fact that at certain key points, readers must translate the events of the fantasy world into their own. Tolkien, for example, takes care to make his characters accessible to readers by insistently connecting dwarves (and Gandalf) to a body of archaic Germanic literature that provides names for each of them. The riders of Rohan gain much of their strength through their similarity to the comitatus of the Anglo-Saxon world; when the warriors celebrate Theoden’s strength and prowess, they so do in pure Anglo-Saxon dialect. Even the chief prize of the story, the Ring, is a motif found throughout medieval literature. And when one lays Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth over a map of modern Wales, there are some surprising similarities.

This is not to say that Middle Earth is just modern Earth with odd characters; it is, however, to note that the similarities, and to a lesser degree the differences, between the two worlds do more to connect them than to divide them.

Or, to take a more recent example, Piers Anthony’s extensive Xanth novels gain much in their connection with our world when we understand that Xanth is—cartographically, at least—the Florida of Anthony’s imagination. Even with his unique, punning names, it often takes little more than a moment of reversal for the underlying ‘realities’ of our world to peek through.

Science fiction is similar. On the one hand, it struggles to distance readers from the worlds it describes and develops. They are alien landscapes, other planets and other places, peopled by creature that are not us. There is a problem with this, however. If the alien becomes too alien, the writer runs the risk of losing readers—without the perception that the aliens are to some extent like us, if not us, there can be little empathy with them, and hence, no story. No matter how oddly named the creatures, no matter how distorted their usage of language—and no matter how many scientifically-tinged words are invented to explain inventions and discoveries—the story must at some point remain at the human level.

Horror is slightly different. It depends upon readers shifting out of their own experiences and integrating themselves with a world in which the unthinkable can occur. It is crucial that readers accept, almost from the opening lines, that something beyond experience—yet still within imagination—will happen. One of my favorite opening lines comes from a story not usually classified as “horror” yet distinctly so in content and feel, Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” (1915). In German it reads: “Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer verwandelt.” A loose translation might be: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic beetle.” Pure realism…until the final phrase/word. Then, abruptly, a monstrum enters, for which there is no explanation in the story.

In order to be more specific about what I mean, let me quote the opening lines of one of my most successful novels, The Slab:

It was a day made for death.

Brittle shards from the slanting October sunset stabbed at the quiet street. Brassy gold stained shaggy lawns a murky, coppery brown. The dying light fingered naked limbs of rain-blackened elms and fruitless mulberries and peaches and skeletal jacarandas. It rested heavily on the drooping branches of the occasional valley oaks that had survived construction of the subdivision two years earlier. It tinted vibrant stucco walls not yet faded to earth-mud brown by interminable summers of suns, not yet hidden behind luxuriant passion vines or junipers or the creeping jasmine so popular in this part of Southern California. In the odd, quirky light, the Charter Oaks subdivision became an enigma of striated shadows, dead black pinioned against muted October color in the late evening of a day that had been more cloud-ridden than otherwise.

The first sentence—pretty obvious. Yet (I hope) there is more going on than just the blatant reference to death. It begins neutrally, with “It is” as subject and verb, which forces readers to wait until the end to discover what and how. Not a clear indication of horror, but a tactic designed to inculcate a certain element of suspense.

The most suggestive part of the sentence, however, is implicit in the last four words. Death is, again, obvious; but in attempting to construct an effective opening sentence, I added two things. First, consonance, or the repetition of consonant sounds, a kind of muted internal rhyming: day, made, death. Then assonance, repetition of vowels: day, made. The result of these interconnected sounds is that the final phrase becomes emphatic, linked, each word resonating off of the others, leading to the climactic death.

Second, the sentence was constructed to create a specific cadence or rhythm. It is not as superficial as a strict iambic meter, as in a poem; rather, it tries not to create a periodic rhythm. The first three words intentionally do not carry significant stress. A pronoun, a static verb, an article introducing the noun—the implication is that the oncoming noun will be first important syntactic element, the thing the sentence will actually discuss: Day.

Day is followed by a verb-like word, made, that, even though relatively vague, is still more action-directed than is. The internal sound patterning suggests that made should receive the same amount of stress as day, which places two stressed syllables next to each other and automatically creates emphasis.

The next word, for, is a preposition that has as its primary function to indicate an oncoming noun…and to alert readers that the noun will be the more important of the two and will thus receive more stress. The result is three heavy stresses in four syllables, building to the strongest emphasis of all on the final word.

When taken together, all of these decisions create the following sentence: “It was a day made for death.” It begins rapidly, the tongue sliding over the three unstressed syllables; slows in the middle, with two adjacent stressed syllables; drops on for and then swoops upward to hit death with the strongest stress of the three.

Now, one of the advantages to writing about my own sentence is that I can say all of this—five full paragraphs to discuss seven monosyllabic words—and know that everything I’ve said was intentional. I can’t know whether it worked with every reader the way I hoped it would, but I do know that each word was selected carefully and consciously.

Lest anyone wonder at this point whether the rest of this book will be given over to as intense a word-by-word analysis of the next paragraph as was applied to the first seven words, the answer is “No,” although I suspect that similar points might be made.

Rather, I would just like to point out some vocabulary decisions regimented by the desire to create a moment of darkness, of horror.

“Brittle shards” suggests harshness and threat in ways that a parallel phrase—“golden rays,” to use a clichéd example—would not. “Slanting” is not particularly threatening, but in conjunction with the first two words, the named month, and the sentence-verb “stabbed,” the implication emerges that something might definitely be amiss. Nor should readers be surprised to discover that the action of the first chapter takes place near Halloween.

“Brassy,” “stained,” “shaggy,” “murky,” “coppery” (with its frequent association with blood), and “brown,” continue the sense, intensified in the next line by “dying,” “naked,” “rain-blackened” (itself a riff on the previous “fingered”), “fruitless” (suggesting sterility, even though it is part of the plant’s name), and, of course, “skeletal.”

For the next couple of sentences, the reader is allowed to stand back and breathe. There are even a few non-horror words to distract attention away from death and horror: “survived,” “vibrant,” “luxuriant,” “passion.” Then the darkness returns in the final sentences with “odd,” “quirky,” “enigma,” “striated shadows,” “dead black,” “pinioned,” “muted,” and “cloud-ridden.”

What the first two paragraphs offer, then, is the possibility of discovering in the description several underlying themes for the novel as a whole. Certainly “stabbed” will play an important part, as will “stained,” “dying,” “naked,” and “skeletal,” although the implications of the final term won’t be obvious until the final chapter.

In fact, most of the key words will resonate with at least one episode in the tale that is to come, some obviously, some less so. Each element, each choice was intended to guide readers into the world of The Slab and begin creating the tone, the feeling, the eeriness that characterizes the house. Using nothing but words, words, words.

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.