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The term quiet horror might seem like an oxymoron for anyone who doesn’t read widely in the horror/dark fiction genre.

Most of the uninitiated would say ‘Horror! Shouldn’t that be all blood and chaos and axe-wielding maniacs?’

But there are those of us who much prefer to spend our time dancing with the slow burn child of the horror genre. We come alive in its silence, its paranoia, its stark and shadowed solitude. It tells us that the things we have to fear are more than happy to wait for the right moment to crawl under our skin. That moment between heartbeats when you hear the floor creak above you in an empty house. The point where imagination meets logic and the seeds of unease are sown.

And there’s nothing more terrifying than what your imagination can conjure up from the unexplained.

Quiet horror walks hand in hand with the trappings of the Gothic. I make no secret of the fact that I’m slightly in love with deserted, crumbling houses in the middle of nowhere, with magnificent cobweb-shrouded staircases, with fog creeping over desolate moorland dotted with craggy tors, with ancient graveyards and weathered moss-coated stones.

But quiet horror is equally at home in the modern world. The concrete, graffiti-sprayed underpass, the seemingly innocuous house in a suburban estate where nobody stays for long.

Combine quiet horror with a character-driven story and the magic spirals into its own special darkness.

As a writer nothing makes my heart beat faster than a character-led narrative. Make your reader care about your characters and you’re halfway there. Make these characters suffer and you have that Gold – emotional conflict where your reader is fully invested (and probably cursing you from afar for your cruelty).

It’s the vulnerability of a character in a situation laced with dread that digs a blade deep. That knowledge that something awful is about to occur. The pain of watching their reality crumble.

Whilst all the time the reader’s palms are sweating because they know the character doesn’t understand they are in a horror story. Yet.

You can have the best plot and the most original story in the world, but if your characters are cardboard cut outs, the book will sink faster than an anchor at sea.

So, back to quiet horror. What exactly is it? I’d best describe it as atmosphere and the gradual build of dread throughout a story. Something off kilter in a place/situation. A sense of wrongness. There are no axe-wielding maniacs (who are rightly perfect in a teenage slasher novel) just a character or two, split away from whatever is their normal and thrust into a situation which is very much abnormal.

And this is the magnetic pull of quiet horror. Because, unlike axe-wielding maniacs, this seems like something that could happen. It teases and baits, taking you by the hand, laying layer upon layer of foreboding upon you.

Atmosphere is built by taking your reader from the outside and placing them right in the middle of the page. Their senses are tuned into what your characters are experiencing. And not just the usual senses of sight and hearing. If a character bites into a rotten peach, I want that bitter, skin-crawling moment to make a reader cringe too. 

Sensory details are some of the best ways to get inside your readers’ heads and I always search for ways to deepen that perception.

Scent too, that most evocative of human senses. A sense tied to memory. How a certain smell can catapult us back through time, or make a character relive a moment they have buried for decades. When atmosphere is done right, your readers *are* your characters.

What the weather is doing is closely associated with the build-up of atmosphere too. Any kind of intense weather works. I’ve used raging thunderstorms and white-out blizzards, the close sticky heat of an English late summer and the frost-laden biting cold of early spring. 

Quiet horror is about exploring human psyche; how characters (and therefore readers) react to a certain set of terrifying circumstances and what emotions that brings to the surface. We can imagine ourselves in that same situation, experience the same fears, and it takes us out of our normality, heightening all of our senses.

It’s intimate horror. And its power derives from that primal intimacy.

The horror in your mind is always waiting to sink its fangs. 

I give you a circle of ancient standing stones in an open field. The sun has just disappeared behind a bank of trees. You step inside the circle, feel the drop in temperature on your bare arms. Logic tells you it’s perfectly explainable. 

You are one hundred and fifty metres from your car.

You listen. There is no bird song.

There’s a feeling, a taste, on your tongue. Something earthy, slightly gritty against your teeth.

The sun arrows through a gap in the trees, the light colliding with the largest stone at its tip.

A shadow falls from the stone, moves over the grass, as dark and as thick as treacle.

You turn, look for your own shadow, that attachment to your form.

It isn’t there.

So you run, a wild mass of chaos and panic, back to your car, sure that something is loping right behind you.

You sit in the driver’s seat, your limbs trembling.

After a few minutes, you drive away.

Of course, it was only your imagination. A trick of the light.

If you didn’t have a shadow, you’d be dead.

Beverley Lee

Beverley Lee

Author

Your Free Short Story is Waiting!

A short and twisted retelling of The Buried Moon, an English fairy tale.

In Aramet, a wise queen rules over a luscious and peaceful land. Surrounded by seven fine sons, six of which have brought her the treasures of her kingdom, only August, the youngest prince, born with a caul over his face, has yet to deliver his gift.

Queen Allegra fears for August’s safety so she asks of him one thing she knows he cannot bring. But there is always something watching from the shadows, waiting for its chance to rip away the goodness and leave corruption in its place.

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