Her hand shook as it hovered over the door handle. A small sob escaped her and she swallowed hard, fighting the tears. She wanted nothing more than to crawl back under the covers; crawl back and cocoon herself in the darkness and pretend she hadn’t heard the footsteps in the hallway outside, the footsteps that had been followed by the sound of that hideous voice whispering her name. The sounds had stopped when she’d cried out, demanding to know who was outside. But it was there – she knew it was there on the other side of this door now. Waiting. Her heart slammed against her chest as she imagined what was on the other side of the flimsy wooden barrier. A thousand dreadful possibilities played out in her mind, each more terrifying than the last. But they all had one thing in common: they were all smiling cruelly as they sensed her terror. She forced her hand to move and curled her fingers around the cold steel handle.
I love the way horror writing can kindle The Fear that we all have in us. The way it allows us to experience dread and dismay through the eyes of another so that we question what we would do in their place. Would you open the door? How can you not open it? We’ve all sat in front of the screen and despaired at the babysitter who descends the stairs into the unlit basement, and told ourselves that all the money in the world wouldn’t get us down there. But let’s face it, as a species our fear of the unknown is only surpassed by our desire for answers and knowledge, and it’s this that makes us carry on down into that basement.
All good fiction is about imperilment and obstruction. It’s about getting your audience to crawl inside the head of your protagonist so that they can vicariously experience the many obstacles and pitfalls that you’ve put in that character’s way to stop them achieving their ultimate goal. We all want to root for the underdog and see them triumph over adversity. And horror (dark fantasy, gothic fiction, call it what you will) is the genre that allows you to imperil your protagonist like no other. It allows you to put them in the direst of situations and ‘suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ until they want to scream (and indeed, many do scream). And because of the incredible dangers and misfortunes they encounter, the heroes in horror books also turn out to be special and memorable.
I also love horror because it taps into our primeval need for fear and excitement. There isn’t a sabre-tooth lurking in the darkness outside the cave anymore, but their can still be fanged predators lurking in our wardrobes or tip-tapping at the windowpanes of our bedroom. We can still experience the terror of not knowing what is on the other side of the door. If you don’t want to know, horror fiction probably isn’t for you. Me? I’m stretching out that shaking hand, grasping the handle and pulling the thing wide open.