October 22 – 28: Horror: “What is essential to crafting a believable horror environment?”

It’s time for halloween: ghosts, goblins, jack-o-lanterns and horror writers! We have a packed house this week with ITW’s premier horror authors. This week join David Sakmyster, Brett Talley, M.R. Gott, Michaelbrent Collings, R. Thomas Riley, W.D. Gagliani, Rick Reed, JG Faherty, Douglas Wynne and Christian Riley as they discuss the essentials of crafting a believable horror environment.


R. Thomas Riley is the author of the short story collection THE MONSTER WITHIN IDEA (2009-2011) published by Hugo Nominated Apex Publications and re-released as a Kindle exclusive in 2011. IF GOD DOESN’T SHOW (co-written with John Grover) was published by Permuted Press and Audible.com, July 2012. DIAPHANOUS (co-written with Roy C. Booth) is available now. THE DAY LUFBERRY WON IT ALL was adapted to short film by Frosty Moon Omnimedia in 2010.

Douglas Wynne is no stranger to dark places; he honed his storytelling craft as a frontman in basements and bars during Boston’s 90′s‐era underground rock scene. Originally from Long Island, he attended Berklee College of Music, followed by a stint as a recording engineer in Woodstock, New York before returning to Massachusetts, where he currently resides with his wife and son. THE DEVIL OF ECHO LAKE is his first novel.

With forty story acceptances in less than two years, as well as a recent “Honorable Mention” at L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest, Christian Riley sees no end to his addiction to writing. His stories have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Midwest Literary Magazine, Short Story.Me, Bete Noire, The Absent Willow Review, Underground Voices, Residential Aliens, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and the widely acclaimed anthology from The Horror Zine, A Feast of Frights. You can reach him at chakalives@gmail.com, or at his rather static blog; frombehindthebluedoor.wordpress.com

David Sakmyster’s stories, screenplays and novels cross a range of genres and include the supernatural thriller Blindspots, the horrifying Crescent Lake, the historical epic, Silver and Gold, and The Morpheus Initiative – a series about psychic archaeologists (including The Pharos Objective, The Mongol Objective and The Cydonia Objective). With author Steven Savile, he’s co-writing a thrilling series about near death experiences called The Lazarus Initiative, and his screenplay, Nightwatchers, has just been optioned.

Brett J. Talley is the Bram Stoker Nominated author of That Which Should Not Be and The Void. A native of the South, Brett received a philosophy and history degree from the University of Alabama before moving to witch-haunted Massachusetts to attend Harvard Law School. He seeks out the mysterious and the unknown and believes that the light can always triumph over the darkness, no matter how black the night may be.

M.R. Gott, the author of the novel WHERE THE DEAD FEAR TO TREAD which was called ” frantic, horrific, brutal, and without doubt the darkest thing I have read in years. Maybe in my life, by She Never Slept and “one of the most disturbing and atmospheric things I’ve read in a long while,” by Dana Fredsti author of Plague Town. Aside from writing, M.R. enjoys strong coffee, dark beer, red wine, and fading light.

Michaelbrent Collings is a bestselling novelist and produced screenwriter. His last two horror novels, APPARITION and THE HAUNTED, have spent months on Amazon’s horror and supernatural horror bestseller lists; and BARRICADE, for which he wrote the screenplay, was released on DVD/BluRay throughout North America in September of 2012. He hopes someday to develop superpowers, or at the very least a cool robot arm. You can follow him on Facebook and in so doing you will guarantee your safety when the Glorious Revolution/Zombie Apocalypse/Fall of Western Civilization begins.

W.D. Gagliani is the author of the horror thriller WOLF’S TRAP (Samhain Publishing), a past Bram Stoker Award nominee, as well as WOLF’S GAMBIT and WOLF’S BLUFF (47North), WOLF’S EDGE (Samhain), the upcoming WOLF’S CUT (Samhain), the hard-noir thriller SAVAGE NIGHTS (Tarkus Press), the collection SHADOWPLAYS, as well as MYSTERIES & MAYHEM (Tarkus Press, w/ David Benton). Gagliani is also the author of various short stories published in many anthologies, plus numerous book reviews, articles, and interviews. He is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA), the International Thriller Writers (ITW), and the Authors Guild. He lives and writes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.

Rick R. Reed is the author of dozens of published novels, novellas, and short stories. He is a two-time EPIC eBook Award winner. His work has caught the attention of Unzipped magazine, “The Stephen King of gay horror,”; Lambda Literary, “A writer that doesn’t disappoint,”; and Dark Scribe magazine, “an established brand—perhaps the most reliable contemporary author for thrillers that cross over between the gay fiction market and speculative fiction.” He lives in Seattle. To learn more about Rick and his various titles, please visit his website and his blog.

A lifelong resident of New York’s highly haunted Hudson Valley region, JG Faherty grew up amid Revolutionary War graveyards, haunted roads, and woods filled with ghostly apparitions. His varied professional career includes working as a resume writer, laboratory manager, accident scene photographer, zoo keeper, scientist, and salesman. He began writing fiction in 2001, and his short stories, poetry, and articles- have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies.

  1. Familiarity is a good way to start, regardless of the context of your story. Anything to get the readers to say, “Oh yeah, I’ve been there before,” or, “I can relate to that,” will help to hook them. You can have every aspect of the paranormal pushing against the credibility of the words you write, but if you tap into the readers emotions, their thoughts, and especially their fears by bringing everyday life onto the pages, they just might keep reading.

  2. For me, a believable horror environment is less about a physical setting than it is about who the characters are and what they’re experiencing when they come face to face with their fears. Sure, you can have the typical frightening environment – being trapped in a creaky old haunted house, locked in a spooky graveyard, or waking up in a deserted amusement park full of possessed clown robots – but it all still comes down to the characters and their fears. With a believable character that the reader has connected with and come to care about, you can have that person sitting in a sunlit park with birds chirping and kids playing, and it can be all the more horrifying if something then sets your character off because of his or her fear. It’s that pairing of a character with something that will truly cut to their innermost terrors or their fatal flaws. I wrote a story called ‘Roadside Assistance’ where a psychologist who has spent his life always knowing where he’s going has to trust a possessed GPS device that sends him to a version of Hell from which there’s no escape. And in my latest novel, Crescent Lake, a man shouldering a terrible guilt finds himself in a scenic small town full of religious zealots and a priest that can bring his past sins back to haunt him. Without that character tie-in to the environment, you might get the frights, but without the resonance it’s not as believable as if seen through a flawed character’s eyes.

  3. I’ll expand on what Christian and David have already said. They’re spot on.

    Even though most of my work features monsters, zombies, and other assorted baddies, I strive to place my stories in a believable, credible setting, then expand on that with interesting characters, and you have a believable horror environment. Your characters should be every day people. I don’t like reading about a character that has all the answers and acts like they know what’s going on 100% of a time and I’m sure most readers are the same. You, as the author, should make it difficult for a character, there should be conflict, and something to overcome, that’s story crafting 101. Put yourself in the character’s shoes and ask, “If this were me, what would I do?” because your readers are thinking the same thing and this makes the story all the more engaging and engrossing.

    Basically, when a reader thinks, “This could probably happen under the right circumstances”, your readers are already meeting you at least halfway. Not every reader has the same fears, and reading a story about a parent losing their child in a department store might not resonate with a readers who don’t have children, but those that do? Well, if you’re a parent and you’ve ever lost sight of your child, for even a minute, in a crowded department store, well, that is a valid, nearly crippling fear.

    Even though horror is fantastical, using monsters as archetypes, or stand ins, for our real and valid fears, is what makes for a good horror tale.

    R. Thomas Riley

  4. How does one craft a believable horror environment, you ask? It takes a careful hand, no doubt. Horror is born in mystery. It is the embodiment of what we do not know, the personification of what we do not understand. But tread carefully friend. Make it too unusual, make it too far out of the realm of possibility, and you lose your tie to the readers. They must feel it. They must recognize it. They must know it in their heart.

    Maybe you should begin with something familiar. Like the house you are sitting in now, reading this article. Your home, and the home of your family long before you were born. The place where ancestors were born and yes, where they died. A place you’ve always felt welcome, except on those long evenings alone when in the corner of your eye you see movement that you never can quite explain.

    It’s a dark and stormy night. No, no, not that. Too cliché, too familiar. Make it an afternoon with a clear, blue sky. But late, so that long fingers of orange light reach out over the scene as a failing sun sinks into the western sky. It’s a day like most, until the knocking begins.

    Your eyes go to the wooden door and you tell yourself that it’s nothing. You are, like Mr. Poe’s protagonist of old, certain that is merely some late visitor entreating entrance at your chamber door. This it is, and nothing more.

    And yet, you do not move. You sit, and you stare at the oaken door through which you have passed a thousand times, and you hope that whoever waits beyond will simply go away. But they do not, and as the long black shadows creep up upon you, the visitor knocks again. And this time, there’s something off. The rhythm is wrong, somehow unnatural. And the sound is muffled and awkward.

    You find yourself rising, and even though you would do anything to avoid seeing that door open, you are carried, one struggling footstep after another, to your own threshold. The room is silent. All you hear is the beating of your own heart, echoed by the boom—boom—boom thundering from the thin-paneled partition before you.

    The knob is turning within your hand before you even know it. The door swings wide, and you stare out . . . at nothing. But then you look down.

    And that is how you create a believable horror environment.

  5. A basement or attic with a flickering light bulb, a dark forest, a remote cabin, a subway tunnel… These horror environments have become clichés for good reasons. Secluded places enable the writer to isolate characters from the help and support of society. In fact, the ubiquity of cell phones is the worst thing that’s happened to horror in a long time, causing many horror writers to set their stories in some earlier era when we didn’t all carry a digital lifeline around in our pockets, or to at least make sure that the protagonist can’t get a signal (of course King solved the problem by writing a novel in which the cell phone itself is the source of the horror).

    Horror knows that our interconnectivity is our salvation. Horror knows that darkness, and the veiling of potential threats is what sets the mind ablaze with fear. But that flickering bulb, that lightning flash, that sweeping flashlight, all give a glimpse of the danger, and glimpses ratchet up the fear and tension more than stark light ever could.

    Still, some very effective horror stories have been set in broad daylight, even in crowded places. Typically these are chilling scenes of bystander apathy, or dystopian tales in which society itself is decaying.

    There are no hard rules, and I think it’s important to try and transcend the old clichés without forgetting why they’re so effective. Maybe the only cardinal rule for a horror setting is that it should be endowed with the same sort of rich detail that makes any setting feel real and immersive. Once you’ve got that realism in place, the monsters also seem more real simply for coexisting with the mundane, and for being described in the same detail.

    In The Devil of Echo Lake I used a remote church in the woods as a setting, but because the church had been converted to a recording studio I was able to outfit it with details that help to lend modern veracity to a classic horror trope. And the fact that my characters are musicians and engineers gave me good reason to use their sense of hearing to ramp up the psychological horror even while keeping the supernatural elements largely in the shadows for a good part of the story.

    What do you guys think? How important is isolation and darkness for tapping primal fear? How important is it to use other senses when suspending visual detail to fire up the reader’s own imagination?

  6. When crafting horror, especially fantastical horror (ghost, ghouls and the like) you must have an environment that your reader can relate to, or identify with. There may not be an undead intruder in your house, but if there was what would it sound like. Would you hear an unfamiliar rhythm of feet downstairs? Is the familiar creak in the second step louder, than usual? Is it all in your head?
    Personally in my writing I work to take a familiar comfort that most people have in their life, something they can trust, and re-evaluate it. How can it be changed subtly so that it is now sends a trepidation up your spine?
    A horror environment lacks a sense of security. In my writing I want to show you I understand that security, make you think it will protect you, before I tear it away from you.
    When you put my book down I want you to move to the window and double check the latch, and as you do so have a sudden fear that something is about to shatter the glass and reach into your house grabbing you, and pulling you into the darkness you thought you were protected from.
    The more senses you can incorporate also helps. It is not just a sound, but a subtle odor wafting ahead of the noise. Your revulsion causes your muscles to tighten involuntarily, your toes curling on the cool linoleum. Next you gag tasting the rot in the air. And it is then you see the shadow preceding the figure as it moves around the corner taking you.

  7. There are probably a bitrillionjillion things that could go into the crafting of a believable horror environment (I’m rounding up a bit, but you get the picture). That said, I think there are three that stand out as critical starting points:

    1) Give the readers a map.
    I’m not talking mountains and valleys (though they may be important), but rather the position of critical elements of the environment in relation to your good guys and your bad ones. Things that go “bump” in the night are much scarier if you know they CAN’T be the fridge’s ice maker, because that’s off to the left… and the bump came from the right. Similarly, when going through a haunted house it’s all right to be disoriented, but to be truly lost is a bad thing, because then there’s no hope of understanding what’s going on in relation to the possible avenues of exit or escape. Madman coming after you with a knife? It helps to know where the closets are. Setting up the geography of your own particular neighborhood in Hell is critical so that obstacles and opportunities can be recognized and realized through the course of your story.

    2) “I’ve got a kind of fifth sense about that sorta thing.”
    All too often, writers treat their characters (and audiences) as though they have some strange sort of sensory deprivation. They HEAR the ghosts thudding around in the attic, they SEE the blood and guts as the zombies begin chomping on a loved one. But do they FEEL the slippery gel of the alien secretion beneath their feet? Do they SMELL the fetid breath of the machete-wielding killer? Do they TASTE the coppery, salty flavor of the blood that streams into their mouths as they try to keep from screaming? Horror is something that completely infects our minds, altering ALL of our senses and perceptions. Don’t limit yourself to one or two, make the environment something that can be seen, felt, smelled, tasted, and heard.

    3) Environments don’t matter without people.
    The old question “If a tree falls in the forest but no one is around, does it make a sound?” holds particular pertinence for horror writers. There is ALWAYS someone in EVERY environment we write about. Even if none of the CHARACTERS are there, the narrator and the reader (or hopefully readerS) are. The environment only matters inasmuch as it matters to one of the PEOPLE interacting with it. One of the most stunningly realized environments in all of literary fiction is that of the desert planet Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece DUNE. The planet almost takes on a life of its own, forcing the inhabitants of the planet to bend to its needs and providing much of the narrative impetus that keeps the plot going. It is fascinating reading. That being said, if you take away the characters that we care about, the people we feel like we have come to know, a detailed description of Arrakis would be no more interested than a detailed instruction of how to cook a Pop Tart (though admittedly the label on the side of the Arrakis box would be much bigger). The environment can create terror. It can push the story in different ways. But only when people we care about are walking through it can it truly be made to flourish.

  8. As the previous respondents have pointed out, anchoring to a real environment is often the key to an effective and credible horror setting. Of course, you can also create a whole new world. You can use the staples of the horror genre: the lonely castle, mansion, or cabin; the dark of a cavern; a basement or tunnel; a haunted house; and the like. One of the qualities of the so-called Splatterpunk movement of the 80s that influenced me was the daring idea that horror could take place right next door. Stephen King had certainly continued Shirley Jackson’s tendency to make the setting a mundane, familiar one when he placed his vampires in a typical American small town in ‘Salem’s Lot, but it took that 80s doubling down on the trend to really make an impact on me as a young writer. I loved the tingle I felt when I realized how frightening things could be when they took place in recognizable settings usually devoid of the bizarre. That very paradox created some of the best and most effective horror environments!

    In my own books, the Nick Lupo series, I write about a homicide detective who also happens to be a werewolf. He follows that Talbot tradition by being mostly an unwilling werewolf… but when I needed to complicate his world in a second book, I realized that I had to create other werewolves, and give them a back story to explain why they exist. I had to decide: would I open up my world to all sorts of monsters? In my other fiction work, I tend to make humans the monsters. Spoiler alert: often my protagonists end up having a previously unmentioned “dark side.” In the Wolf books, I made Nick a protagonist who hates being a monster and tries to avoid being one, but cannot because the Creature within influences his behavior. Once I decided that I would create multiple antagonists who might well also be werewolves, I also decided that the rest of the setting would remain recognizably the “real” world we live in. So I have used the North Woods of Wisconsin as a setting for large portions of the novels, mainly because there are numerous local legends and plenty of werewolf mythology upon which to draw. But I have also used urban settings such as dark alleys, lofts in rundown or refurbished warehouses, apartment buildings, and a casino, as well as the woods and a beach on an inland lake — all mostly “mundane” settings.

    For me, a believable horror environment is one you are able to anchor to the real world enough to convince readers your tale could happen there (or next door, where the Gacys and the Dahmers might live). What’s essential, then, is to make it recognizable, to describe it as a visitor might, one who doesn’t see the dark places, the frightening shadows, until they are pointed out to him or her. Or until something out of nightmare comes pouncing from one of those places. I think blending the typical (not to say cliche) horror environment with the less typical may be the best strategy to tell a solid story about characters who hopefully engage the readers’ interest and passion. The environment needs to work without calling attention to itself.

    Of course there are no definite rules. The mileage always varies, depending on how the vehicle is handled. You get away with what you can, and ultimately your readers decide how effective and convincing you were.

    W.D. Gagliani

  9. For me, crafting a believable horror environment is all about setting it down in a place grounded by reality. I set a lot of my work in Chicago and the gritty urban landscape is a place where readers can easily go to in their minds and that, I think, makes it much more terrifying when the horrific elements take place. It’s because it’s real…and readers can put themselves in the place of the book’s characters.

  10. Picking up on something that Michaelbrent said, it’s very effective to involve as many senses as possible when describing… especially action. I don’t use a checklist, so I don’t know if I always take my own advice here, but whenever I write action scenes I do try to use as many senses as I can. Attempting to make the action cinematic is another way to create a believable horror environment — picking good sensory details will strike and light the reader’s imagination. Leaving out sensory details will likely make for a confusing, fuzzy scene.

  11. Action definitely requires sensory input or else you risk confusing/alienating the reader. You can deprive the reader of certain sensory information if you are careful, but there is a thin line between disconcerting someone (which horror almost always does) and becoming annoying to them (which good literature of any stripe should generally stay away from).

  12. Great point! Deprivation is an excellent tool, as well. After all, the scariest monster is the one you don’t see. At least for a while. In Wolf’s Gambit, I made a big deal out of the sounds the shapes make as they sneak through the dark woods, between the pines. The rustle of leaves, the occasional snap of a twig. All done to terrify the character, who becomes nervous at the sounds of stalking, but hopefully also the reader, who doesn’t know when the monster — in this case a wolf — will reveal itself. When it does pounce, it’s too late. Anyway, depriving the character of the ability to see what’s in the shadows (while letting him hear) is a tried and true technique that still works harder than the effort it takes to set up.

  13. Environment is essential for any story, as essential as plot or characters. Can you imagine a gothic ghost story without a spooky house or stormy night? Or an apocalyptic novel without a desolate, ruined landscape? This isn’t to say you can’t build an environment to suit your story – placing your ghosts in an apartment complex or your zombies in a mall, for instance – but it has to be essential to the story. In my upcoming novel The Burning Time the unbearable heat of an unusual New York summer plays a key part in the plot of the story – sure, I could have set it in southern Georgia if all I wanted was heat, but the inhabitants of a small Georgia town would be used to sweltering conditions. In upstate NY, those same temperatures cause people to act out of sorts and fry patience to a crisp.

    The idea of making the environment believable is something each writer has to struggle with. If you’re writing about a small town, you need to know how people in small towns act, and react, in various situations. It’s fine to use the stereotypical setting of a small town, but you can’t stereotype the people in it. Just like your apocalyptic world – which none of us have ever experienced but we have preconceived notions about – must simultaneously meet certain expectations and go beyond a two-dimensional cookie-cutter description, so must your haunted house, your village, your apartment complex, etc.

    Begin with the ordinary, the known, the expected, and then mold it slowly but surely into what you need, while at the same time keeping it familiar to your reader. That is how you maintain believeability.

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