When I was a boy I devoured those choose-you-own-adventure series of books. There was a sense that anything could happen when reading them and often my choices led to the main character’s violent and painful death. As I became more familiar with them—and learned which choices led to doom—any lingering sense of danger evaporated. They no longer jolted that part of my brain that loved being creeped out. In my teens I moved on to the likes of Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Dean Koontz. For a long time their stories satisfied my itch for that wonderful sense of dread I craved. When I got older and started reading more widely I learned who their influences were. I discovered the early luminaries of weird fiction such as H. P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson, Algernon Blackwood, and others. This was my awakening, if you want to call it that.
The sort of horror they wrote was different. It didn’t rely on brutal violence or wild spectacle. Stories like William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland were subtle and established a foreboding sense of dread from their outset through careful establishment of atmosphere, descriptive details, and deliberate pacing. They were like nothing I’d ever read before. These stories crept up on you and made you feel like shedding your skin and crawling into a dark hole somewhere. Obsessed now, I delved into the newer practitioners of the weird such as Laird Barron, T.E.D. Klein, and Thomas Ligotti. Somewhere along the way I realized that all of these authors have something in common—a profound sense of the uncanny and the ability to flesh it out on the page without resorting to parlour tricks and cheap gore.
Horror for me has never really been about medically visceral descriptions of mayhem and carnage. For those who love wallowing in gore: fill your boots. There’s value in that sort of thing when it’s done well, but it’s not really scary. Shocking, yes. But scary? No. What scares me the most is the unknown. It’s that noise that wakes you from a dead sleep in the middle of the night—probably just the cat, but you can’t be sure as you lie there in the dark. It’s the giddy sensation of imminent danger when you’re walking alone in the woods at night and smell something foul on the wind. It’s the feeling you get when you discover an ominous new lump somewhere on your body. Those things are far scarier than some ragged zombie shambling after you, smacking its cracked lips at the prospect of eating your brains.
The best horror stories unnerve readers because they reproduce those primal feelings as you read them. You are transported to a place where you don’t feel safe or comfortable and there’s no guarantee that anyone will escape the ensuing horror, whatever it may be. Sometimes even just the inference of the uncanny is enough to do the job. H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu is all build-up, and we only get a wink at old Cthulhu himself near the end, but you’re hooked because Lovecraft knew how to wring maximum effect from his use of phrasing and mood building. As his characters are pushed inexorably towards their fates you realize they were doomed from the outset, and maybe the rest of the world along with them. There’s a profound sense of inevitability about the proceeedings. As Jim Morrison once said: “No one here gets out alive.”
As a writer, then, I strive to achieve two things: to honor those who paved the way before me, and to carry on the tradition of crafting stories that wrap around your heart like icy fingers as you read them. I don’t always succeed, but I’m getting better at it with every word I commit to the page. If you read one of my stories and find yourself thinking about the implications of it afterwards, then I’ve done my job right. That’s all I can hope for.