The Elements of Good ScaryTelling: The Horror Within
by Shannon Appelcline
We're currently in the process of putting together a H. P. Lovecraft comic. It's a companion to our brand-new Lovecraft Country Online game and also a sibling to our recently released Castle Marrach comic.
As such, it shouldn't be that surprising that I've been thinking about horror, and more importantly what makes good horror.
I've written a bit about this topic in the editorial that I'm putting together for the Lovecraft Country comic, and I think the portion of it about creating horror bears repeating. Here's what I wrote:
I've been a fan of H.P. Lovecraft's works for at least ten years. I've read almost all of his fiction, Howard & Smith's contemporary works, many of Derleth's additions, Campbell's wonderful Severn Valley stories, most of Robert Price's collections, and more. I've got 17 feet of shelved Mythos books, running from Ackroyd (First Light) to Zelazny (A Night in the Lonesome October).
I've written chronologies and histories of the Mythos races and the Mythos world, which you can find in the Encyclopedia Cthulhiana, and scattered online. I've flown with the Fungi, danced with the Dark Young, and swum with the Star Spawn. Which is all a fancy way of saying that Iím familiar with the horrors that haunt the Mythos and the dark places that they inhabit.
And perhaps that makes it all the more surprising how little upfront horror there is in this comic. Certainly there is a Yellow Sign, some dark dreams, and the hints of something more, but no monster presents its scaly face to the readers of this comic, no protoplasmic prodigy lurches into view, even briefly. Instead the horror is left to the reader.
And this is, I think, as it should be.
Any true horror story is largely about the mundane, about our safe, rational, sane universe. About our world of 100-watt bulbs burning away the darkness. And then we see, on the edges, or perhaps hidden in the fabric of the sane world itself, something else. And there is the horror: the terror is in our rational world made unsafe.
And this is the core of Skotos' online game, Lovecraft Country: Arkham by Night. The game's motto is "Act as if Nothing is Wrong", and it's about an Arkham that pretends that horrors do not exist, that tries to go on with its own life. This is the mood that I've tried to create in this comic as well.
I think if you go back to many of your favorite horror stories you'll find that they hold true to this same idea. Zombie invade a suburban mall. A boy sees dead people in his own home. A rabid dog stalks a family neighborhood.
Granted, some horrors do take a different tact. They make the setting horrific as well, a haunted Hill House or a spooky wood, but I think that even they strive to constrast normalcy with the alien, just in different ways, by constrasting their house with a house that isn't "wrong", or showing the human nature of the characters all the more clearly.
So if there's one piece of advice that this writer and game designer has this week it's this: all horror begins at home.
Or, in our case, in Arkham.