Making the “Boo!” in “Book”: Horror Writing
By M.G. Knight
Writing horror is a fickle trade, especially when children are concerned. How much is too much? We certainly don’t want to cause mass hysteria among middle-graders, so where do authors draw the line? How can we hold a child’s attention without giving away all the answers? Or, perhaps more accurately, without having a mass of sleep-deprived, jumpy pre-teens on our hands? On top of these, the same questions that plague every writer are pondered in the creation of horror fiction. A scared child can always close a book firmly and walk away, but let’s face it: children like to be frightened—to an extent. To keep youngsters flipping the pages, writers must keep in mind several notions that are displayed in Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener: tone, setting, tension, pacing, and the characterization of the antagonist.
The Night Gardener introduces us to Molly and Kip, two recently orphaned siblings making their way to work for the Windsor family. As Molly and Kip begin their employment, they discover that something else stalks the Windsor Mansion besides their bully of a son and bratty daughter: a tree-man known as the Night Gardener, who tends the magical tree that grows alongside the house. This tree gives people what they desire most—but at the cost of their lives. After Mrs. Windsor collapses on the brink of death, Molly and Kip decide it is up to them to stop the Night Gardener, save the Windsor family, and escape with their lives.
Tone is essential in horror writing from the very beginning—in fact, from the very title. The name of a novel is so significant that R.L. Stine uses the titles of his books as inspiration to find his stories (Petit). The title tells readers what to prepare themselves for before they even open the novel, as any Goosebumps book can attest. Likewise, the beginning of a novel must continue that tone, making the story dark, suspenseful, and just plain spooky. The Night Gardener opens with this simple sentence: “The calendar said early March, but the smell in the air said late October” (Auxier 1). The decision to make October the general atmosphere (weather-wise) is no coincidence: every middle-grade child knows that October is the time of year when the ghouls and ghosts come out to play. Auxier then continues to describe Molly and Kip, two orphaned siblings looking for the Windsor’s residence. This is where the suspense comes in: no one is willing to give them directions.
The tension and setting feed the tone of the story, and if you didn’t catch on earlier they MUST be established at the BEGINNING of the novel. Nothing is worse than opening with a light, humor-ridden atmosphere and then suddenly throwing a monster into the mix. In the case of The Night Gardener, the tension increases as we discover that the children have been traveling for a few weeks, that they have no food, and that Kip is sick. The children finally find a storyteller willing to give them directions, but with a warning. She says, “[E]veryone in Cellar Hollow knows to keep clear of that place. Children are warned off by their parents, who were warned off by their own parents, and so on as far back as any soul can remember” (Auxier 9). That’s exactly what you want to hear on the way to your new home and workplace, right?
The setting acts to intensify the tension of the story and add to the tone. Word choice and sensory descriptions are especially important here. The woods in which we first meet Molly and Kip, for instance, are described as having roads with “black and greedy” mud. Similarly, when the children run into the storyteller, Kip believes her to be a witch. The setting of the Windsor residence is just as frightening: It is surrounded by a wood that has no life, no birds, no insects, and the residence is cut off by an ancient, rotting bridge. The mansion itself is “surrounded by dark trees” with “miniature hills” surrounding it. Yes, we find out later those are graves (Auxier13). The house is beside a towering, uninviting tree that is so close to the abode the two look as though they are of the same structure. Would you want to live here? Unless you’re a certified Ghost Buster, I sincerely doubt it. In horror, these three elements—setting, tone, and tension—work together, one propelling and fueling the others.
Pacing is paramount in horror writing. As much as children enjoy being frightened, McKee’s Law of Diminishing Returns illustrates how scary scene after scary scene after scary scene leads—well, to yawns instead of screams. As a result, many horror stories seem to have a roller-coaster approach to their plots, in which the tension increases and decreases, then builds until the story reaches its climactic height. That doesn’t mean repetition is useless, however. Author Leigh Michaels explains how repetition of an action, phrase, or event is a great way to build suspense if it isn’t overdone. This is illustrated wonderfully in The Night Gardener.
The Night Gardener is first openly discussed between Molly and Penny when the girl is being put to bed. She tells Molly that sometimes when she can’t sleep she hears him wandering the house (Auxier 63-64). That very night, Molly hears the Night Gardener walking from room to room in the mansion; when she goes to investigate, she finds only a top hat and dead leaves. Almost sixty pages later, Molly and Kip run into the Night Gardener as they return from catching an escaped horse. Sixty pages after that Molly and Kip decide to spy on the Night Gardener, with horrible results. Forty pages later (You thought I was going to say sixty, didn’t you?) we are told the legend of the Night Gardener at the story’s midpoint. In between these scenes are slower-paced events that let your heartbeat relax. After this turning point, however, the action escalates. Molly and Kip decide to try to capture the Night Gardener. When the plan fails, they resort to running away with the Windsor family, the climax of the novel.
As these examples demonstrate, the pace must not be so intense that readers will have a heart attack from fear-induced anxiety. Rather, authors need to lead readers gently up and down, making them afraid and then giving them some breathing space, which is also an optimal time for continuing the story’s plot and for character development. Auxier uses this space to spin the suspense around the room with the green door, to give the history of the Windsor family, and to explore Kip and Molly’s relationship. These pages are also the perfect area to remind readers of the stakes at hand. Michaels states, “Keeping emotions at the core of the story reminds readers how important the situation is.” In The Night Gardener, Molly and Kip need the job at the Windsor’s residence in order to survive. They have nowhere else to go. As they learn that the Night Gardener is causing them all to slowly die they must choose between their lives or possible homelessness.
One key notion authors should keep in mind when their horror story has a living antagonist is that readers must understand the anti-hero’s actions. This largely involves avoiding cliché villains who are evil for no particular reason. Writer and editor Cris Freese discusses the need for authors to explore the minds of their villains as well as their heroes:
Ten years or so ago, many books had nothing more to say than “the devil made me do it.” Now, thanks to the influence of films like Friday the 13th, it seems enough for some writers to say that a character is psychotic; no further explanation is necessary. But it’s the job of writers to imagine how it would feel to be all their characters, however painful that may sometimes be. It may be a lack of that compassion that has led some writers to create children who are evil simply because they’re children, surely the most deplorable cliché of the field.
In having a villain that makes his or her decisions for specific reasons, a story is given a logical flow that would otherwise be missing. In Jonathan Auxier’s novel, the Night Gardener’s logic is given in the legend told by the storyteller. According to the story, the Night Gardener was a man who loved his floral children so much he wished he could live forever with them. The tree granted his wish on the condition that he help the tree survive by taking the lives of others, its source of nutrition. Without this information, readers would be left scoffing at the idea of a man who stalks a house a night, slowly taking the lives of the people sleeping within.
In order for horror to be believable, it must be realistic. Authors must establish a world with a proper tone, setting, tension, and pace in order to create a believable horror story—be it with a monster, a human, or even something inorganic. R.L. Stine gives this advice: “If you tell people to write from their hearts and to write only something they know, they get blocked totally. Instead [. . .] it’s all about the imagination” (qtd in Petit). In horror, the sky is the limit—as long as you’re not inducing those heart attacks we talked about earlier…
Auxier, Jonathan. The Night Gardener. New York: Amulet-ABRAMS, 2014. Print.
Freese, Cris. “The Horror Genre: On Writing Horror and Avoiding Clichés.” Writer’s Digest. F+W, 25 Oct. 2013. Web. 23 April 2015.
Leigh, Michaels. “5 Simple Steps on Creating Suspense in Fiction.” Writer’s Digest. F+W, 21 Feb. 2012. Web. 23 April 2015.
Petit, Zachary. “More & More & More Tales To Give You Goosebumps (Yeah, We’re Talking about R.L. Stine).” Writer’s Digest. F+W, 11 Jan. 2012. Web. 23 April 2015.