Can you really scare your reader? (And how to avoid a flimsy manuscript)

The Exorcist ScaryWhen I began writing my first published novel, Playground, I knew the best way to gain any sort of critical success with it would be to provoke a reaction from the reader. A book that doesn’t engage the reader is rarely worth reading; just my opinion of course, but perfectly valid for the sake of this article.

If a book is supposed to be comical, it should make the reader laugh. If the book is a thriller, it should have them on the edge of their seat (pardon the cliché). If it is erotic, the reaction should surely be arousal; fantasy, should induce escapism. This particular ideology of mine was problematic for me as a horror writer because it proposed the following questions:

(a)   Can a person be physically frightened by reading?

(b)  How do you write something that will scare your reader?

I used to think that although books can be creepy, you would have to be short on nerve if a novel actually frightened you. I’d read a lot of Lovecraft, and there was certainly an ominous quality to the work, and Stephen King’s books were darkly entertaining, sometimes even disturbing, but had never read any anything that actually frightened me. I’d read many horror novels by numerous authors, most of them exceptional, and while I was immensely entertained by them, I had never received the feeling it was supposed to evoke: Fear.

This changed a few years back when I read The Exorcist. I’d been extremely frightened having just seen pictures of the film as a child, and when I eventually saw the film in my early twenties, I must admit, I was pretty damn shaken. But when I read the book, that fear was somehow amplified. I’d never encountered anything like it. 90 pages in and not much has happened, and then Regan goes into her mother’s room and says something as simple as “I can’t sleep. My bed keeps shaking,” and I was covered in gooseflesh. I was reading the book alone in the house, and I suddenly needed to piss real bad. And, for the first time since seeing An American Werewolf in London at the age of about 6, I was scared at the prospect of making the walk to the toilet in the dark. I even had a nightmare about the possessed Regan being in my bed when I finished the book and swiftly reached for my rosary!

This, to me, was a marvellous read and the perfect example of how an author can engage completely with the reader. Obviously we all know what happened after William Blatty’s book was released, and I’m pretty sure it was his ingenious way of terrifying his readership that did it.

I believe that the way for a book to be critically and commercially successful, is to provoke a reaction out of the reader, no matter what genre you write. I doubted that I had the originality in me to frighten any of my readers, but I could damn sure try and disturb them. I also read a lot of Jack Ketchum, who if you’re unfamiliar with his work, writes about very real horrors that could happen in your average neighbourhood; rape, torture, murder and so on. It was his unflinching style that disturbed critics and readers alike and made him a well-known name in the horror arena.

The way I saw it, I had to be fearless. I couldn’t worry about what my mother or grandmother might think of a detailed rape scene, or how people might react to racial slurs or graphic details of violence. If the book demanded it, I would provide it, and I would do my best to make the reader see it and feel every disgusting word of it.

A friend of mine used the term shock-jockey to describe someone the other day, and although I can’t remember who he was talking about, he was referring to their approach of saying something lewd in order to provoke a reaction from the public. All publicity is good publicity, that sort of thing. While I wasn’t necessarily trying to be shocking for the novelty of it, I wanted to prove that I wasn’t intimidated by the prospect of any fictional topic. I would explore every dark, swampy corner of my imagination. For this reason, Playground features a crack addict being raped and later self-harming, a child molesting policeman impersonator, animal abuse, and much more.

When I was working for a small publishing house a few years back, a woman sent in a manuscript about a group of middle class women that start an agency to murder paedophiles worldwide. I thought the idea was pretty novel and was looking forward to it. And, while the idea was in fact a decent one, the execution was not. The author was timid of using the word ‘Fuck’ and completely appalled at the prospect of, God forbid, actually detailing a horrific scene involving a paedophile – which happened to be the core subject matter of her book. No, the author didn’t want to seem to touch that at all. She was far happier with us knowing that there was simply a paedophile somewhere, and then a woman would be assigned to kill him. No emotional involvement on the reader’s behalf, no edginess to keep a reader gripped, but more importantly, no author-reader engagement. It was a flimsy, cowardly manuscript, and I told the publisher as much.

An author needs to abandon all fear of what people may think of them at the typewriter and do what is best for the story. If they hold back, they do their novel and anyone who buys it a disservice, and more often than not, the reader can tell when they’ve been mollycoddled.

At all times one should strive to write a good, faithful and interesting story that people will want to read. If you have any commercial hope for your book, you should write for your audience as much as yourself.


Samuel BonnerSam works as a marketing manager for Indepenpress and has written novels such as Playground and Someone’s in the House.