I just finished reading Stephen King’s Under the Dome, which may be one of the best books I have ever read. I had to stop reading it at work because it was affecting me emotionally, and I just finished up with a several-hour stretch of reading in one go. It’s a massive book, that you cannot put down.
I have a memory from middle school, where an English teacher told us that a good story invokes an emotional response- that if you are reviewing another person’s story, even if you don’t like the content, if the text incites emotion inside you, even if you don’t like that emotion, it is good writing. (Perhaps excluding such things as someone with an opinion you passionately disagreeing with provoking anger. But then, maybe they conveyed their hateful position really well.)
This is perhaps the most relevant thing to writing that public schools have ever taught me.
I am a relative newcomer to King’s work; I started a few years ago with the Dark Tower series, read 1408, then moved up to It, ‘Salem’s Lot, and recently Under the Dome, borrowed from Tim’s shelves or found on the bargain bin at Half Price Books.
Throughout those three novels, there is a supernatural element to be sure- It, the vampires of Salem’s Lot, and the Dome. And the supernatural element does some pretty horrifying things. But the scenes that left the biggest emotional impressions in all three books were deeds done by normal people to normal people.
The supernatural dulls the pain. We expect the vampire to drink from the damsel, the zombies to eat the brains, the werewolf to tear people to shreds, and whatever the hell It is to do whatever the hell it is that It does. We read the lurid descriptions of gore, but does it scare us? Does it touch us?
King has a knack for ensemble casts; so there’s always the chance to throw in a scene with a normal person doing unimaginable things to normal people. And when it’s a normal person doing the killing (or worse), we don’t necessarily need the gory description. The act itself is enough. It hits closer to home. We weren’t expecting it, we weren’t prepared for it, and the real horror is evident.
(This is particularly obvious in Under the Dome, where the Dome is essentially a Dues ex Machina to crank the isolation up to 11 and focus in on imperfect characters in a stressful situation.)
As a writer, I feel this is an important realization. Horror needs to have a human element. Otherwise it’s just a monster mash.
As a gamer, to an extent I feel I already knew this: play close to home. Horror’s pretty hard to come by in D&D, where you have wizards and knights and orcs; it’s easier in Vampire which is set in the modern day (but you still have vampires and werewolves and mages, oh my). Dogs in the Vineyard? There’s a supernatural element, but it’s subdued. Sorcerers are other people. Human, imperfect people, doing evil to other people. You’ll get a look of shock in Dogs. You’ll be the horror yourself. Jeepform games take this all the way to the edge; your character might be a cutout, and you have to mentally project yourself onto it, you deal with real world issues, and the emotions are your own.
But when you know this you can still have horror with the fantastic; you just have to keep it close to home. Escape from Tentacle City works because it starts largely as camp parody, but the characters evolve and become human as the game goes on- you find yourself killing off people you actually find you care about. Wicked Nights makes the conflicts largely about humans and human interests- vampires are largely antagonists. If you want horror in D&D (and it certainly can be done), you have to make the victims human (either not just cut outs if they’re PCs, and not just background cast if they’re NPCs). Disturb the player.
Because horror is not a vampire, or a dragon, or an indescribable monster. Horror is other people.