Horror Novels – The Slow Burn

slow burn campfire

I had a conversation a few nights ago with a fellow horror author, and the power of slow builds came up.

It’s hard to frighten someone with the written word. While I will pound the table in defense of books as a superior art form to film, I humbly acknowledge horror films have huge advantages over horror books when it comes to generating true scares.

Gifted direction, camera angles, musical score, and strong acting are some of the main advantages horror films have for frightening an audience. And although cliche’, the horror movie “jump scare” is almost impossible to replicate in printed form.

So how do I scare readers?

There are a myriad of strategies I implement when attempting to frighten a reader. The most important, by far, is characterization the reader can get behind. I want to create a character you can believe and make you care about the character. Then, once the character is placed into jeopardy, your natural reaction will be to become stressed. I may not have enough fuel in the tank to scare you yet, but I’m well on my way.

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The Slow Burn

Read a Stephen King novel. Or choose Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, Scott Nicholson, or any of the other excellent horror writers working today. Pay particular attention to the author’s pacing during a frightening scene.

In most cases, the most successful horror authors use a slow build within a scene. Nothing is rushed. The horror broods and broods until you realize you’re trapped without an escape route.

Look, I can’t come right out and show you the boogeyman. Maybe I could inside of a movie, but not with the written word. In order for me to frighten you I need to do everything right.

slow burn horror wilderness

You won’t be frightened until you feel a sense of place. If the boogeyman is hiding in the closet, I haven’t done my job until I walk you from the kitchen to the bedroom and sit you upon the bed with cookie in hand. You need to feel the cookie crumbs on the bedsheets. You need to see the room – the lamplight pooling around the base of the nightstand and dying in the middle of the room, the Black Sabbath poster scotch-taped to the paint-chipped wall, the bed sheets and blankets covering your chest and legs but won’t stretch past your neck…unless you crawl underneath…

And even then you won’t believe the boogeyman exists. But if I place you in that desolate room and make you hear the muffled rumble of the television through the floor, so that no matter how loud you scream, your parents won’t hear you, then I’m at least halfway home. Because once your closet door starts to creak open, and once those shadows start to spill into the bedroom like a black ocean, I need you to be that kid in the bed.

And then if I do everything right, and if I catch you in a receptive mood, I might just chill you to the bone with the written word.

Masters of the Slow Burn: Horror Authors Who Build Unsettling Atmospheres

The slow burn is a narrative technique that has become synonymous with psychological terror. Rather than relying on sudden shocks or gore, these stories gradually build an unsettling atmosphere, creating a creeping sense of dread that lingers long after the book is closed. Several authors have proven adept at this technique, and their works continue to resonate with readers and critics alike.

Shirley Jackson

Perhaps no one is more associated with the slow burn than Shirley Jackson, whose novels like “The Haunting of Hill House” take the reader on a deliberate and unsettling journey. Jackson’s works often focus on the mundane, but with a subtle twist that slowly unravels the characters’ sanity. Her mastery of characterization and mood makes every turn of the page a descent further into terror.

evil man teaches boy

Stephen King

Stephen King’s expansive bibliography features a number of novels that exemplify the slow burn. Works like “The Shining” demonstrate King’s talent for building characters and environments that grow more frightening over time. His exploration of ordinary people grappling with extraordinary horrors allows readers to become immersed in the story, feeling the tension ratchet up with every chapter.

Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti’s philosophical and existential approach to horror places him among the most unique authors in the genre. His stories often explore themes of isolation, madness, and the uncanny. Ligotti’s nuanced and intellectual prose weaves a web that traps the reader in a slowly tightening grip of fear, leaving them pondering long after the story has ended.

Robert W. Chambers

Robert W. Chambers, best known for “The King in Yellow,” uses the slow burn to introduce readers to an unsettling world filled with forbidden knowledge and cosmic horror. His deliberate pacing and use of recurring symbols and themes create a haunting and otherworldly atmosphere. The gradual reveal of the story’s horrors makes the eventual climax all the more terrifying.

M.R. James

A master of the classic ghost story, M.R. James is known for crafting tales that are subtle yet deeply unsettling. His stories often start with a scholarly or historical premise, leading the reader down a path that grows darker and more disturbing at a measured pace. The horror in James’ work is often implied rather than explicit, making it all the more chilling.

The slow burn is a powerful tool in the hands of a skilled horror writer, allowing them to craft stories that linger in the mind and chill the soul. These authors demonstrate that sometimes the most effective way to terrify is not with a sudden shock but with a gradual and relentless buildup that leaves readers both fascinated and horrified. Their works stand as testaments to the enduring power of psychological terror, where the anticipation of horror often proves as dreadful as the horror itself.

Don’t Let Them Run Away

Hitchcock's Psycho

Think about how expert directors like Hitchcock paced their scenes, allowing the disquiet to simmer before the monster was unleashed. The shower scene of Psycho didn’t open with Norman Bates holding the knife. We followed Janet Leigh through the dingy motel room, watched her peel her clothes off and step into the shower, and saw from her perspective the spray cascading down. Think about how you would write this scene, if you were constructing a Psycho novelization.

Two more excellent examples are the directions of Fred Walton’s When A Stranger Calls and When A Stranger Calls Back. The pacing of the brooding horror is tortuous. You cannot help but squirm as the babysitters are unknowingly stalked by madmen. In a bad slasher movie, the opening scene to When A Stranger Calls would last a few minutes. In Fred Walton’s direction, it lasts over twenty excruciating minutes in which the viewer is immersed in the creepy house.

Do not under any circumstances allow your readers to run away before the monster gets them. Lure them in, then trap them. That’s what I did in Storberry.

As authors of horror novels, it is important we slow down and allow our readers to immerse themselves in a scene. Slower is better. Go for a gradual build, and never rush the process. Writing for horror is incredibly challenging, and it is imperative we give ourselves every advantage. Take your time with the scene. Then scare Jessica to death.

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