Mr Barlow from ‘Salem’s Lot’
Warning – this article contains plot spoilers.
As a writer of supernatural mysteries and horror, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what will scare my readers and why. I’m happy to admit I’ve looked to the work of great writers to see how they’ve done it, and there’s no-one who has a better track record of terrifying his audience than Stephen King. He’s made the hearts race and the palms sweat of generations of readers since his debut, Carrie, in 1973.
One thing I have learnt is that what is frightening can be quite individual – what has one reader afraid to turn the page will leave another completely unaffected. One of the keys to King’s popularity is that he employs a lot of different tactics to scare – so if he doesn’t get you one way, he’ll get you another!
Here are just some of the techniques I’ve observed the great man using across his amazing literary output.
1. He taps into our universal fears
There are certain themes that flavour all of King’s work, which mirror things that we are all afraid of: death, disease, addiction, abuse, madness, loss, loneliness. Sometimes these universal fears walk the pages of his novels naked and unabashed. Sometimes they come in the guise of something else – an event, a character, a monster, even an inanimate object.
One of King’s undoubted masterpieces, The Stand, plays on a number of these interrelated fears in a veritable symphony of terror. When the disease known as Captain Trips lays waste to civilization, its survivors have to battle the effects of the disease, their own bereavements, and their own isolation, as well as the elemental forces of evil that try to seize the opportunity to prevail in the new world emerging.
2. He creates a familiar world
Imagine someone gave you a Stephen King novel, one you hadn’t read, but removed his name from the cover and the pages inside. What aspects of his style would immediately identify it as one of his books? For me, it would have to be the texture of the every day that he renders through reference to familiar things – objects, brands, music, TV, food, drink, all the minutiae of life.
A Stephen King character doesn’t just grab a beer, he grabs a Utica Club. And as he drinks it we find out what his favourite Creedence song is, what brand of radio it’s playing on and where the distinctive dent is on his yellow VW. What’s the point of all this detail? Simply this – believability. King colours his worlds with the mundane, the things we all know. That way, we are nicely settled into somewhere very much like our own lives when the horror kicks off and everything starts to get strange.
Gage from ‘Pet Sematary’
3. He let’s us guess what’s coming
There’s no doubt that it should be the horror writer’s job to keep people guessing. A good mystery, with lots of twists and turns, is a good way to keep readers turning the page. You want readers to say, ‘I didn’t see that coming!’
Or do you? Sometimes, letting readers work out exactly what’s coming can be just as powerful as a clever twist, particularly when what is going to happen has a horrible, desperate inevitability about it – one of those ‘Oh no, please not that!’ moments.
The best example of this I’ve come across in King’s reportoire (and perhaps anywhere) is in Pet Sematary. From the moment that Louis Creed’s young son Gage is hit by a car and killed, there is a horrible predictability in what is to come. You know that he will not be able to stop himself from using the burial ground to reanimate the child, with dreadful consequences you will hardly be able to bear to read.
The Marsten House from ‘Salem’s Lot’
4. He takes us to unsettling locations
As a writer I’m hugely inspired by places – from buildings to towns to whole landscapes. The atmosphere of these locations, how they made me feel, has been the starting point for entire novels, and I think I can see the same thing going on in King’s work.
There are too many great settings in his novels to list here, so I’ll mention just two:
The first is the Marsten House in Salem’s Lot, which was the first Stephen King book I read, aged just 13. I still remember the vivid descriptions of this ultimate example of the menacing house – the lair of Straker and Barlow. I can still feel the sense of smothering menace and of wrongness that it embodied.
The second location is The Barrens, the area of wasteland, gravel pits and rubbish dumps at the edge of the town in It. This unsettling edge-land, where kids roam and hidden dangers lurk, particularly speaks to me because it’s very reminiscent of some of the abandoned and post-industrial landscapes that have so inspired my work. The power of such places is that, in an age where most people live in urban areas, we all know places like this – run-down ‘bandit country’, overlooked and unmentioned, somewhere you’d think twice about going alone.
5. He gives us protagonists to root for
I would think every book ever written about how to write will tell you to create sympathetic characters – in particular your main character. Protagonists must be likeable, relatable, perhaps flawed, but trying to do the right thing and overcome the odds. King is an absolute master at this.
I have always particularly related to Ben Mears in Salem’s Lot and Andy McGee in Firestarter, but for me the ultimate King character to root for is a woman – housewife Rosie McClendon in Rose Madder. As Rosie walks out of her abusive marriage on the spur of the moment, you could not be more on her side, more engaged with her story. You know, with horrible inevitability, that her violent, ‘bad cop’ husband is going to track her down. And you’re also pretty sure the mysterious figure in the painting she finds a pawnshop is going to protect her when he does. Norman’s comeuppance is as delicious as it is inevitable.
Pennywise the Clown from ‘It’
6. He creates antagonists to hate and fear
Even more than a main character to sympathise with, a horror novel needs a potent enemy, whether real or supernatural (or perhaps a bit of both). They must be dark, evil, utterly terrifying, yet hatefully fascinating. King has excelled in this area perhaps more than any other, creating baddies and monsters so potent they will surely live forever as some of the greatest ever conceived. From the shape-shifting uber-monster in It, to the twin evils of Barlow and Straker in Salem’s Lot, to protagonist turned monster Jack Torrance in The Shining, King’s antagonists never let you down.
But for me, his most repugnant creation is George Stark from The Dark Half. Not only is Stark a heartless, sadistic murderer, who revels in the brutality of his killings, he is of course the shadowy alter-ego-come-to-life of protagonist Thad Beaumont. What a simple, brilliant idea. The reveal of Stark’s true origins – something between an unborn twin and a tumour with teeth and a malformed eye – has to be one of the most disturbing moments in modern horror.
But what about…?
I hope you’ve enjoyed my own personal trip through the macabre craft of our greatest living horror writer. There are so many other books and characters and locations I could have talked about, and this points to perhaps the most important impressive thing of all about King’s canon: the sheer scale of his work and the worlds he’s created in 43 years of writing, of being the King of our darkest fears.