Three published — and bestselling! — Malaysian authors share their techniques on how to create a good scare on the page.
HOW do you transfer a nightmare from the mind to the printed page? We asked our horror authors a few questions about the craft of writing horror fiction.
How were you first inspired to write horror fiction?
Tunku Halim (TH): As a child, I believed that there was an invisible world hidden from us. I also enthusiastically read horror novels in my teenage years in the late 1970s and early 1980s. So it was a natural thing to write scary tales. My first attempted piece was about a haunted road in KL. It was winding, lonely, and was beside thick jungle. A white dog was reputed to appear suddenly on the road or, more terrifyingly, a Pontianak would suddenly appear in the car’s backseat. Since then I’ve continued writing in this genre ... but I’ve also used it as a foundation to explore other areas.
Lee Ee Leen (LEL): It started when I was nine or 10. I didn’t like a girl in my class, so I wrote her as a werewolf, and killed her in my story. My teacher read it out to the class, and they all got scared. And I thought, “I’m on to something here!”
Julya Oui (JO): I grew up among friends and relatives who were great storytellers. No matter what stories they shared, there was always room for at least one good scary tale. And back then, fear of the dark was something we had to deal with every day. But these days I get my inspiration from being curious about why we fear the dark in the first place.
Is there a process you use in writing your horror fiction? Do you plan to scare or unsettle your readers?
TH: I start with a disturbing, dark or dreadful idea. It then takes me by the hand and leads me down strange, sinister and sometimes seductive paths. I lure the reader down the same track. Often there is no plan, just the natural progression of an idea or narrative.
LEL: If you try to scare your readers, they usually see you coming for miles and the game is over. What I like to do is ask myself “what if”? For example, the first story in my collection 13 Moons is about haunted puppets. I asked myself: what if the décor in your office could turn on you?
JO: There is no one process or plan that I follow other than feeling fear for myself while writing. This usually works out very well.
How do you evoke fear through words?
TH: The key word is “description”. You need to provide enough details to activate the reader’s imagination. You need suspense too. How you pace the narrative is very important. So is credibility. The characters, the setting, the plot must seem real. For example, in my short story “The App” from my latest collection, 7 Days To Midnight, an app on a smartphone takes over a junior banker’s life. So for the story to have credibility, everything else in the narrative must seem very real.
LEL: It’s a technique from horror movies: the monster you show the audience can never be scarier than the monster in their heads. Always suggest horror. Give a telling detail that suggests a monster’s inhumanity. Don’t say “it was a headless ghost”; say things like “he saw a figure, and its reflection in the mirror didn’t quite match”. The British writer M.R. James (1862-1936) was very good at this.
JO: It starts with a chance storytelling session with a bunch of friends. When they cringed at certain descriptions or words, I knew I had them wrapped around my little finger. Basically, I try to describe things that will excite the five senses.