My first real piece of editorial advice came from my fourth grade teacher, which counts as elementary advice in more ways than one. During a parent-teacher conference, I sat on one side of a classroom table with my mom and dad while Mrs. Petrie (not her actual name but close enough) sat on the other. She talked to them about the stories I’d been writing in her class. Very imaginative was, I think, how she described them, and that alone swelled my eight-year-old heart with pride. They were scary stories, filled with ghosts and vampires and other undead creatures, and receiving validation from an adult, a teacher no less, on their value built my confidence. But the kicker came with what she said next: “To make the stories better, he needs to think about his words. The word ‘creepy’ is fine. Describing what can be creepy is better.”
Mrs. Petrie’s observation on language can be applied to all fiction, encased in that classic nutshell of show, don’t tell. When it comes to short fiction, though, and short horror fiction in particular, the advice becomes a little more complicated. How exactly do writers build suspense, unease, or terror through words, and so few words at that? If I knew the answer, you could skip to the end of this essay for the secret formula and be on your merry way to crafting unnerving pieces of fiction on your own. But any serious reader of this wide, weird genre knows that a silver bullet does not exist, that certain stories are better than others in getting under the skin. What we can talk about comes back to language, though not in textbook definitions. What different writers have done with their words to disturb us can be our best lessons.
Madness, with all of its Romantic-with-a-capital-R connotations, has been a long-standing pillar in horror stories. The dark allure of the subconscious and its phantasmagoria of physical manifestations lends itself well in blending nightmares and reality and exploring human nature. Most American middle or high school students encounter, say, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in their English classrooms, where their teachers are eager to outline feminist themes and footnotes of the author’s biography before the more visceral reaction of a first read. If it’s been awhile since you’ve read it, check it out again. The story is damn scary. Yes, there is enough symbolism and metaphor to launch a thousand midterm essays, but it’s Gilman’s writing, assuming the banal diction of a Victorian woman as she loses her mind, that compels us to read the story in the first place. Through simple language, Gilman lures us into her character’s world with nary a suspicion of the supernatural. By the time the patterns in the wallpaper begin shifting in the moonlight (are they shadows? Or is there something lurking back there?), we as readers are more than willing to ride the fever dream to its conclusion, sane explanation notwithstanding. The story’s concise language points to the mysteries without spoiling them, allowing us to spin out different interpretations without frustration over ambiguity. Somehow knowing where the gaps in logic are makes the madness we do witness all the more terrifying.
In other stories, knowing exactly what is going on with the characters, perhaps even more than the characters themselves, ratchets up the tension for horror. Throughout his long career, Ray Bradbury, the Midwest writer of science fiction and fantasy, had a surprising yet satisfying streak of darker stories that told more than they showed and got away with it. Though no stranger to purple writing, Bradbury uses his poetic style as a means to an end with recreating familiar myths and allegories. But nostalgia can also be a weapon, pointing back at the reader. The space crew in “The Third Expedition,” from the short-story-collection-cum-novel The Martian Chronicles, land on Mars only to find an idealized version of their hometowns from Earth. Rather than Martians, the inhabitants of the town are deceased relatives and friends. Indeed, Mars is heaven, and Bradbury paints the scene in the pleasing hues of a perfect summer day. Everything is so wonderfulon the red planet that, as the spacemen are separated and led to their respective past homes, we start to dread if it is too wonderful, and if these reanimated loved ones are who they claim to be. By then, we know something bad is going to happen; the question is when. And Bradbury, also no stranger to suspense, teases out the warm-hearted tone of the story until the very end, when a spaceman realizes that his “brother” is not so much keen on hearing about the spaceman’s life as ending it. The trap of sentimentality set by the Martians is a similar one set by Bradbury for the reader: both lull us with kind words right before the lights go out. Instead of Gilman’s unassuming prose pointing to the unknown, Bradbury’s lush language hides in plain sight the eventual horror that sneaks up on the spacemen—and us—right before it’s too late to escape.
But stories about demonic wallpaper and Martians, some might say, are outlandish in their horror. Such tales can only be scary if one’s imagination is free to roam into dark, fantastic places, untethered from reality. The point is well taken. There is more than one way to describe creepy, to paraphrase Mrs. Petrie. Not all writers need rockets or abandoned nurseries to get us there. Some only need a house.
Though her unsettling novel The Haunting of Hill House will be her lasting legacy to the genre, Shirley Jackson also had the rare gift of imbuing her short fiction with lurking dread. She could leave readers with an uneasiness that other writers would need hundreds of pages to achieve. Stories with the most ordinary of settings, and the most average of characters, slide off-kilter with a single detail, a line of dialogue, or a pause. Call it domestic horror, if you like, an offshoot of the haunted house archetype where the people are filled with as many ghosts as any Bad Place they may encounter. If modern audiences have not binge watched the adaptation of Hill House on Netflix (if you are part of this group, please stop reading this now and go watch it), they probably know Jackson from a high school reading assignment of “The Lottery,” the infamous story that incurred the wrath of housewives who revoked subscriptions from The New Yorker. The power of that story comes from the unadorned, normal language Jackson uses to describe a New England town and its inhabitants. She keeps the tone neutral, even folksy, as neighbors turn violent against one of their own. This ritual bloodletting is considered commonplace in the universe of “The Lottery.” The horror does not rise up in any character where the reader can find catharsis; what happened to those made-up characters could very well happen (and has happened) in our reality. As Stephen King once said of her writing style, Jackson does not need to shout these morals in telling her stories. They are better reported in the language of the everyday, punctuated by the odd or disturbing twist we can never predict, only anticipate. This potential for horror lingers in our own lives and leaves us anxious for the time the crowd closes in on us.
The best monsters, many times, are the ones we don’t see. Sometimes the open door to a dark hallway is the scarier image, since it points to what could be rather than what is. It takes a good writer to persuade us to uncover our eyes and peer into the shadows; it takes a good and skilled writer to whisper in our ears and tell us what to notice when we do. Words not only have the power to unnerve us but also inspire us to venture further down the corridor. If we read enough writers who have done it well, who have scared us with sparse, colorful, or simple language, perhaps we as writers can learn how to do it ourselves in our own stories.
Now wouldn’t that be creepy?
M.C. St. John is a Chicago writer. His work has been published in After Hours Press, Aphelion, Chicago Literati, Ink in Thirds, Literary Orphans, Maudlin House, Quail Bell Magazine, Transmundane Press, Word Branch, Unbroken Journal, and Vignette Review. He is the author of the short story collection Other Musicand the e-book FewBlox. Follow him on Instagram under the handle @MC_StJohn.