Book a chat

Catriona Ward and the Power of Writing Horror

guest authors Oct 02, 2022
writing horror

Writing horror is a thrilling endeavour, but the genre offers more than spine-tingling fun to authors and readers alike. In this blog post, internationally bestselling author Catriona Ward explores the value and power of the horror genre, and why she so loves writing horror stories.

Catriona is the only woman to win the August Derleth Award for Best Horror Novel twice – for her debut, The Girl from Rawblood and again for Little Eve. Plus, her bestselling novel and Richard & Judy Book Club pick The Last House on Needless Street was recommended by none other than Stephen King himself, who declared: 

I haven’t read anything this exciting since Gone Girl.
—Stephen King on Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street

So what makes a good horror story and how can writers draw on their own fears to capture the reader’s imagination? Read on to find out.

Catriona will be joining us for a live author session and members of The Novelry will be able to ask any questions and hear her insights. 

 

Writing your fear

Horror deals with big, subterranean feelings, the feelings we shy away from as adults – fear, grief, trauma.

People tend to put horror writing on a lower tier of the hierarchy of genre, because there’s this feeling that as grown-ups, we’re not supposed to feel these silly, childish things.

When you write horror stories, you make yourself vulnerable to the reader, open yourself up, show your own fears and ask readers to enter into them.

And there’s something shameful about fear. It’s exposing, makes you vulnerable. It comes from our deepest self. But I think what alienates people from horror fiction is exactly the same reason it’s so powerful. 

Importantly, I have to be afraid of what I’m writing, in order to render that fear on the page. When you write horror stories, you make yourself vulnerable to the reader, open yourself up, show your own fears and ask readers to enter into them.

Books aren’t just physical objects. They exist in the interaction, the bond of empathy created between writer and reader. In gothic and horror this is a particularly powerful interaction, because it asks for such difficult feelings to be shared.

Ultimately, horror should make the reader feel less alone.

 

Which genres include horror?

There’s a great description of the gothic which I think holds true for horror – that it’s not a genre in itself but behaves like a virus, attaching itself to texts and adapting through time as needed.

I like this idea, because it chimes with what I’ve always felt – that horror and the gothic can be found everywhere, in all genres. You don’t have to be writing your own horror story to benefit from the elements that make successful horror.

And horror is a survivor. It surfaces and resurfaces at different times, grows popular and falls out of favour, but it never goes away.

Horror and the gothic can be found everywhere, in all genres.

 

horror writers can find tips to write good horror stories 

 

Setting and genre in horror novels

I’ve always written gothic novels, though the first two, Rawblood and Little Eve are more traditional and easily recognisable as historical gothic.

They take place in the past, in the UK, and feature a female protagonist beset by captivity and family curses against the backdrop of a crumbling home.

My most recent novels, The Last House on Needless Street and Sundial, are departures from my previous work. I wanted to take the gothic to the extreme, to the limit of its component parts, but also defamiliarise it. So Needless Street and Sundial are both set in the US in the present day.

A great deal of the action of Needless Street takes place inside a boarded-up house. The house becomes the world, every detail matters. Outside, another key setting is the woods themselves. The opposition between the captivity of the house and the savage unbounded wild is quintessentially gothic. All these tropes are used in the book at an extreme. Needless Street also features a talking cat, but that might be a story for another time.

Sundial is set in an abandoned compound in the Mojave desert, where a mother and her twelve-year-old daughter face their past – each one is convinced that the other wants to kill them. Like Needless Street, it’s anchored on that strongly gothic opposition between house and wilderness. The open space of the desert is as effective as a cage – you can’t venture far into it alone without dying. It has elements of speculative fiction, a touch of Frankenstein, and a vein of domestic noir.

 

The publishing industry helps determine the genre of your horror story

The shelf your novel lands on in the bookshop can often be a combination of factors.

All my novels are marketed in the US as horror. In the UK, they’re ‘gothic thrillers’. Whatever you call it, they rely on a deep connection to our subconscious fears.

The US readership and publishers take the horror genre much more seriously than the UK does.

My books have been nominated for horror and fantasy awards, crime awards, literary and speculative fiction prizes. There’s something to be said for straddling various genres. And I remain convinced that most good writing contains some horror – some portal into the darkness.

There’s something to be said for straddling various genres. And I remain convinced that most good writing contains some horror – some portal into the darkness.

 

The comfort of crime

One plot aspect that crime, thriller and horror genres all have in common is the unfolding of a mystery, with a reveal, or several reveals at the end. 

I think readers – or this reader, at least!  gravitate towards these stories for exactly this reason. They are about imposing order and logic on the chaos of existence. In these stories, death and injustice are met with action, logic and solutions. There’s an answer, a perpetrator, an identifiable evil in good horror.

It’s a great comfort, a way of shaking your fist at the arbitrariness of an indifferent universe. I love the elegant simplicity of plot in those early Dorothy L. Sayers novels, in Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh – of The Moonstone, in particular, and Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. There’s something heroic and human about the figure of the detective, fiercely pursuing order and justice. There’s a reason this kind of fiction has seized our imaginations in such a firm grasp.

In these stories, death and injustice are met with action, logic and solutions. There’s an answer, a perpetrator, an identifiable evil in good horror.

 

Reveals in horror stories

Whether it’s the detective discovering the identity of the murderer or a final confrontation with a monster, these genre plots culminate in a cathartic rush, a purging of tension and fear, and a revelation.

This has evolved in thrillers into ‘the twist’ – where the reader’s expectations are upended, and their view of what has been going on in the book is fundamentally altered. Simultaneously, this should feel like the only possible outcome for the story.

Readers don’t like to feel cheated – there’s a covenant that you as the writer make with them at the outset; a promise that the world you’re building for them has stable walls and solid foundations. Reveals shouldn’t introduce new rules, or previously unmentioned architecture, whether you’re writing horror stories, crime, psychological thrillers or any other genre. You have to make the world reveal itself, not reinvent itself in that moment.

The most important aspect of the process when writing a twist is being in control of what the reader knows at any given time. This becomes a process of burying misdirection and suggestion, subliminal and otherwise, into the fabric of the text, so that the outcome feels natural.

 

Write your heart

There is a famous Emily Dickinson quote, much beloved of creative writing courses:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant.
Emily Dickinson

For me, gothic, horror, thriller and crime are profound, dark spaces to tell these slanted truths – to present life from a surprising angle, reflected back in a strange mirror.

I see genre as a wealth of possibility for the writer, a way of expressing deep and dark realities. But in order to do that, you have to start with personal truth from the author – which means always writing passionately about what matters most, within horror fiction and beyond.

 


 
 
catriona ward on writing good horror stories

Catriona Ward

Award-Winning Author

Catriona Ward is the internationally bestselling author of powerfully chilling horror stories, including The Girl from Rawblood and Little Eve – both of which won the August Derleth Award for Best Horror Novel. The Last House on Needless Street was not only a Richard & Judy and BBC Two ‘Between the Covers’ Book Club pick, recommended by the king of horror novels, Stephen King. 

Share this article

Find your course

We take beginners and experienced authors all the way from an inkling of an idea to a book in a year and on towards literary agency representation with our online creative writing courses.

Start today!

Subscribe to the blog

Sign up to get the Sunday paper for writers to your inbox.



Subscribe

Recent blogs

How to Write a Cover Letter for a Book Submission

Nov 18, 2022

How to Write a Book Series

Nov 13, 2022

The First Draft of a Book with Laura Purcell

Nov 06, 2022