|All artwork here is copyright Cubicle 7 Entertainment. Links below.|
It's a question I have been asked frequently at conventions, through email, and on Facebook. And after nearly 10 years of it, I'm still writing horror, so perhaps the question is all the more relevant. So, let me take you to a dark place and tell you how I use fear in writing horror fiction and games. And I'll illustrate this rambling with art taken from the book I’m most known for, Shadows Over Scotland (Cubicle 7).
So, I have been writing horror in one vein or another for years. During that time, my work has been neatly divided between writing prose and writing for games, but always the focus of both has been on exploring the darker side of the human experience. Yes, even in games... you would be surprised--or maybe you wouldn't--by how effective games can be for exploring what makes us tick.
I'm currently in the process of writing a novel set in 1920s Glasgow that follows the disturbing experiences of two brothers recently returned from the First World War. The book is a mix of horror fiction and historical fiction which most Call of Cthulhu roleplaying gamers will be very familiar with. Additionally, I'm awaiting the publication of three different scenarios through Chaosium, the publisher of Call of Cthulhu (now in its 7th Edition after 30 odd years--go Chaosium!). I'm also eagerly awaiting the publication of Cubicle 7's Cthulhu Tales narrative card game which I had a hand in, but that's another story.
Let's talk about fear for a moment... Fear is a universal human emotion. It is part of our biology, an involuntary response brought on by a threatening stimulus. This pattern of cause and effect is used and explored in almost endless variation in literature, film, and games. Indeed, the horror genre trades on this formula, tailoring it and embellishing it to dramatic effect.
Some fears are more universal, others less so. Some have a timely significance--for example, fear of invasion and nuclear annihilation largely informed popular culture in America in the 1950s--while others are timeless. My current writing focuses on one of these timeless fears: that is, fear of the unknown.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
- Howard Phillips Lovecraft
The fear of the unknown, the other, or what may—or indeed may not—be… H.P. Lovecraft names it ‘the oldest and strongest kind of fear’... I would also argue that it is the most interesting and has the greatest storytelling potential.
It is a speculative form of fear, a fear that asks questions. Questions both of the phenomenon that is feared—the ‘cause’ in the cause and effect dyad—and character(s) experiencing the fear—those reeling from its effect. The human side of fear is what interests me most. I am particularly interested in how people, how characters react to fear and how it motivates and/or changes them… or, to put it another way, how it fear transforms the characters.
|Transformation? But wait...|
You might argue that there is a literal transformation happening in the artwork above, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the transformation that results in the protagonist or player character who witnesses this scene. The one who survives, but is changed forever.
You can see rather demonstrably in this example how fear can be used to drive plot and to drive character development. How the protagonist or character responds to this situation determines not only where the narrative goes next, but how they 'grow' from this fearful encounter. And that's the really interesting bit.
Let me explain. Experiencing fear of the unknown heightens the senses and we see something from the darkness brought into the light, if only for a moment and perhaps only revealing a crooked claw or the tip of a tentacle like the tip of an iceberg. But in that moment, if done right, it is just enough to bring about a moment of revelation, an illumination of a dark unknown... whatever that unknown might be in the narrative.
“The sinister, the terrible never deceive: the state in which they leave us is always one of enlightenment.”
– Thomas Ligotti
There is a peculiar honesty in fear… it strips away the artifice and conceptions that we construct for ourselves. It provides us with a moment of clarity. That clarity is incredibly useful as a writer as it provides a crucial opportunity for reflection, for enlightenment and/or revelation… and, ultimately, transformation.
Encounters with the unknown encourage, perhaps even force, characters to reevaluate or renegotiate their relationships with the ‘real’ and the ‘other’. Through their connection to the characters and the narrative, readers/gamers are encouraged likewise to engage in this reevaluation and renegotiation. Take the scene below, for example...
What is this villainous character daring us to confront? What challenge does he represent to our values, our assumptions and beliefs? How might we ourselves respond to such horror? How would we manage our fear? What transformation would surviving this encounter bring about in our understanding? Or truth? Or our way of navigating the ‘real’?
Consider another example... In my book, Shadows Over Scotland, there is the suggestion of a scenario where the player characters are aboard an ocean liner. At some point, the characters witness something moving beneath the waves, something that draws their interest. As they look on, they see tentacles rise from water. Someone shouts that it’s a giant squid. Another jokes ‘Where’s Captain Nemo when you need him?’ But soon the waves begin to churn around the boat and the first giant tendrils are joined by an impossible host of unfathomably large tentacles twisting into the sky like Cyclopean skyscrapers.
For the characters on that boat, their frame of reference--their sense of what is and isn’t possible--is shattered and--as a game mechanic--the characters’ sanity is tested. This alien leviathan coming up from the deep is a profound shock--a revelation--and requires the characters and player’s characters to reflect on its significance, reevaluate what they know, and renegotiate their options.
That fear then provides us, as writers, with an opportunity: the exposure to fear is transformative.
In this context, fear is constructive and developmental, not negative. That said, we don't seek out this particular kind of transformation. In our day to day lives we navigate around fear, we sublimate it, we push it down into our subconscious. It becomes part of our collective unconscious, what Jung called ‘the Shadow’.
What I find fascinating about horror writing is how it can be used to examine, explore, and test our fears. To safely encounter the shadow and hopefully to find some illumination or useful discovery within the darkness.
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
– Carl Gustav Jung
As a writer, I find that transformative potential incredibly useful. Sure, using fear in horror fiction and games provide us with memorable and thought-provoking experiences, but it can do more than that: fear of the unknown allows me to explore the unknown within us and our relationships to one another or the world.
As a University lecturer one of the things that drives me is being able to ask and consider the big questions? I suppose it is no wonder then that my writing also seeks to explore the boundaries of what is known and unknown, how we react when faced with situations or knowledge that tests our understanding of what is truth, what is real…
Fear of the unknown gives me the potential to plumb those depths and illuminate those shadows in my fiction and game writing. So why do I write horror? I suppose it is, in part, because I like to ask questions, consider different potentials, and push the boundaries of my own and my audience's understanding.
So when you next experience fear, consider it an opportunity, a learning experience... perhaps while running away at top speed!