Writing Horror, the Occult & the Macabre

the hollow girl
In person, Monahan has a passionate and blunt way of speaking, and I can’t wait to read her book.

A few weeks ago I attended Arisia, the best (okay, only) Fantasy/Science Fiction/Anime convention I’ve ever been to. I attended a number of panels, mostly related to writing, and treated each one like a class, taking notes and asking questions. Here are some of my notes for the horror panel. Although it isn’t written in article-form, I hope you’ll still get something out of it, because these writers were fantastic speakers and I’m psyched to read their books!


  • Chris Philbrook: 16 novels across genres.
  • Hillary Monahan: Author of The Hollow Girl.
  • Morgan Crooks: Journalist and writer of speculative fic & horror.
  • Douglas Wynne: Horror, urban fantasy
  • Tom Deady: Horror (and the best last name ever for a horror writer!)


  • Writing Horror
    • Horror is evoking emotion: Don’t pull punches. Show how it felt
    • Include mini horrors = little connectors or frustrations like prank calls, expired milk or overpriced cable. Find a way to connect readers to your character, no matter how terrible they may be.
    • What are your character’s words?
    • Find a key into the character no matter what. You must be able to identify with this character on some level, even if it’s only at the most basic level.
    • Horror is typified by its worst examples, which makes the rest of the genre look bad. (While Monahan said that she likes gruesome horror on-screen, most of the writers don’t write or even typically enjoy “splatter porn.” (Examples: Hostel, Saw, etc.) If the whole point is slaughter, then the writer isn’t doing the work. Readers should be able to connect with characters and feel something when something awful happens to those characters. IE: Don’t just feel bad because a stranger got hurt, but feel bad because someone you know got hurt.
    • Horror spans a broad range including sexual assault and aliens. Not necessarily always supernatural. Horror for someone with OCD, or a certain upbringing, can be very different than horror from the rest of us. Everyone’s horror is different.
    • Think of the worst problem for your character to fix. Then think of the person least competent to fix that problem.
    • We are a collection of our failures. Horror & frailty; adults unable to protect protagonists or others.
    • More horrors: Threats to people you care about, madness, loss of others’ love, losing a loved one.
    • Don’t “Disnify” parents (advice from Monahan). Don’t let them just disappear like they don’t matter.
      • Fear for self and those around you
      • Maybe parents don’t understand or believe the situation is happening.
    • Good villains are those you can see yourself becoming.
      • Any writer who can make you doubt yourself is a good writer
    • A specific person for a particular fate (Osiris myth). Osiris was made for his role in the myth.
    • Monkey spheres: we are only capable of caring about 100 people at a time. Make readers care about characters QUICKLY
    • Show what you need to only if it applies to the plot
    • Suspense is everything
      • When confrontation approaches, start slowing sections and words to build readers for the story. What pace unnerves you most?
    • Ideas for learning how to write horror/suspense:
      • Read the people that do it the best
      • Type someone else’s short story to understand what they’re doing
      • Read stories aloud to hear the flow, word use and style
      • Read poetry and write bad poetry
    • First-person makes for stronger story
    • Splatter-porn is not the only horror
  • Supernatural represents something you can’t control
    • Examples: Can’t find a lightswitch in a dark room. Loss of control. An inability to understand. Ghosts represent our past.
  • Suggested Reading:
    • Jeff Stran = comedy & horror
    • Grady Hendrix
    • Alyssa Wong
    • Paul Tremblay Head Full of Ghosts
    • Movie: Get Out
    • Marissa Glasser is writing a transgender book
    • Birdbox by Josh Malinger
    • Let the Right One In
    • Read Shirley Jackson (beyond “The Lottery”)
    • Body-horror: Kafka, Laird Barron

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