This is dread, man. Truly dread
I was asked recently, “what was the first book to scare you?”
I didn’t have an answer, because I don’t think I’ve been scared by a book. Still, it made me wonder: what scares people? What makes people cast worried looks into shadowy corners and run up their stairs once the lights are out?
Dread is Anxiety on Steroids
In a day-and-age where horror movies are deemed successfully scary by the amount of jump scares that they have, is becoming scared by a slowly developing image you create with your own mind losing its luster? Maybe. Maybe the visual media is desensitizing readers to the images sewn into print, but I doubt it. People still get scared, people still seek that exhilaration, and people still read scary books. Maybe the question should be why do people get scared?
It’s all about fear and apprehension. That feeling of dread as you read is what makes something scary. Whether it is a jump scare riddled movie or a creepy book, dread is what sends a chill up your spine and gets your heart beatin’. So, how do you build dread into your writing?
Well, I don’t know if I’m the best to answer this question. Instead, let’s look at some books that I found particularly creepy and see how they did it.
What’s Behind the Door or Lurking at the Top of the Stairs is Never as Frightening as the Door or the Staircase Itself
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
A Head Full of Ghosts is about a teenage girl who is believed to be possessed by a demon and the life of her family as efforts are made to exploit and heal her. Tremblay weaves an entertaining tale that touches on mental illness, religious beliefs, and the reality of reality t.v.
This was the book that came closest to freaking me out. Tremblay really creates a slow and building sense of fear as the book goes on, tossing out little hints of what’s to come like breadcrumbs down a dark and twisted path. It's not so much the unknown that causes the sense of dread in this one, as much as it is the ambiguity between what we are shown or told and what the reality is.
Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
Lauren Beukes plays with a small cast of characters to make a truly captivating piece of fiction. Taking place in a rundown Detroit, there is a killer about who has made his victims into something non-human.
Like Tremblay, Beukes works with the ambiguity between mental health issues and supernatural. The scariest thing about this novel is the modifications done to the victims after they’re killed. The apprehension of coming to understand the motivations behind those actions plays two roles: It keeps the reader interested, but also scares the heck out of them; you’re not sure that you want to know.
The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
The only book listed here without reference to the supernatural, Finn creates a suspenseful thriller with a focus on mental health, domestic abuse, and infidelity.
The main character is a woman who suffers from agoraphobia but finds joy in studying people’s lives whether it’s through her window or her computer screen. When Someone is murdered in her neighborhood, someone who was kind to her, she thinks she knows who did it and means to find out. Finn makes this book frightening by placing the readers in the shoes of the main character so that you experience all the anxieties and upset set as she feels them. While it may not sound scary, it certainly keeps you reading and gets your heart pumping.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
I only recently read this novel and really enjoyed it. Nothing like the recent Netflix adaption, The Haunting of Hill House follows the exploits of 4 people who have decided to stay in a haunted house for the summer to study the paranormal. Though it is written in third person, we primarily hear the voice of Eleanor Vance.
Jackson does a tremendous job of building the supernatural elements slowly, while developing the house as a character that we come to loathe. There is a building dread from the characters towards the house that the reader truly feels right up until the very end.
The Dread had not Left my Soul
That’s the difference between the moment of fear that comes with a jump-scare and true dread: dread endures. It sticks with you. So, if you want to write a book that will scare the pants off your readers, invest in dread. Build a long game with slowly increasing suspense and tidbits of foreshadowing. And, finally, make it something believable.
Looking for some more scary stories? Check out the following:
Jacobi Street by Matthew LeDrew
After Dark Vapours by Brad Dunne
The Starving by Jon Dobbin (me)
Zombies on the Rock by Paul Carberry
Chillers from the Rock Edited by Erin Vance and Ellen Curtis.