Saturday, November 12, 2011

Guest Blog with John G Hartness

Elements of a great horror novel

Hi there, I’m John, and I write horror novels. Kinda. Well, sometimes. Okay, not really. But I write about things that go bump in the night, and things that eat babies, and steal souls, and trolls that crush ballet dancers in alleys, but they’re actually funny novels (most of the time).

But I read a ton of horror novels, and there are few key elements that will set a great horror novel apart from an also-ran, so let’s look at a couple of those. I’ll try to keep it short, so we might only get to two or three for today.

1) Great Characters - This is the key for me. I don’t care what’s happening in the book, if I don’t care about the characters, I can’t relate. The plot can’t touch me, because no matter how good a writer you are, you can’t drag me through the pages into the book. So I have to care about your characters. One of the scariest books I read as a teen was Pet Sematary. That book scared the bejesus out of me, not just because of the image of the zombie cat walking around kinda half-cockeyed, but because the main character, Louis, is so believable. This is obviously a strength of Stephen King’s, the insertion of the Everyman into remarkable circumstances, but it works so well in this book that we become very invested in every bad decision that the character makes.
Character drives everything in a great book for me. If I care about the character, I’ll go along for the ride with the writer. If there’s something I can relate to in the character, I’m there. In Dr. Louis Creed (Pet Sematary) it’s his love for his family. In Odd Thomas, it’s his isolation and strange way of seeing the world. In the kids from It (another long-time fave), it’s the band of friendship. All of these characters are very believable and make me care what happens to them, thus raising the stakes for the reader.

2) Comic Relief - You can’t have hours and hours and hours of nail-biting tension, the human body just can’t handle it. We can’t climb and climb and climb and then have moment after moment of terror, you just become numb. Eventually you need to laugh. You need to take a breath, ratchet down the stakes, and see the cat come out of the closet where you thought the killer was hiding. Then you can switch point of view and see that the killer is still in the closet, and ratchet up the tension even higher than before. Comic relief is that breather, it’s the moment at the bottom of the hill on the roller coaster before you start climbing for another scream. If done well, it gets a bigger, better scream at the end. Scream is such a good example of this it’s hard to tell where the comic relief stops and the horror starts sometimes.

3) Pacing - Just like using comic relief to ratchet up or down tension in a book, the pacing of the book can heighten or kill a tense scene. The last thing I want to see in a scene where the main character has been chased through the woods for hours and has barricaded herself into a cabin as a last refuge before the monster gets her is a long drawn-out Tolkien-esque description of the cabin, down to the type of nail heads that are holding the shelves on the wall. That kind of description can kill the pace of a story.

Now sometimes that’s exactly what you want to do - you want to change the pace of a story to give the reader a break. Just like comic relief. But a huge shift in pace is a dangerous tool, because if you wield it unwisely, it will destroy thousands of words of work that built the tension in a book, just for the cause of lush description. Sometimes the heroine can just hide in a cabin, grab a shotgun, and shoot the bad guy.

Another trick writers use to manipulate pacing is sentence and paragraph length. As the action heats up, the sentences get shorter. The paragraphs are more brief. The writing is more clipped. That lets people read faster, and can bring a reader along with you to the climax.

Those are just a few key elements writers think about when working in the horror genre, although I’m quick to say that a book without some consideration to all of these things is going to be pretty lame no matter what the genre is. Especially character, because that’s what keeps us as readers coming back again and again - good characters that we care about.

My new book Genesis, hopefully creates some characters that people will care about. It’s an apocalyptic novel about a group of teens who don’t have to save the world, they just have to save their own butts and eventually find their mom. And then they have to figure out why there are fireballs shooting out of their fingertips, too!

By John Hartness

The end of the world was just the beginning.

Now they have to stay alive.

17-year-old Christin Kinsey started the day with nothing more pressing than an English exam. But when an EMP attack knocked out all technology across the globe, she found herself in the mountains of Georgia trying to stay alive in a world suddenly thrown back in time a hundred years or more.

And when she starts shooting lightning bolts out of her hands, things get really weird. Christin, her younger brother Matt, and Matt’s cute friend Dave have to figure out what this new world is about, why they suddenly have super powers, and what happened to their mom in this apocalyptic fantasy novel geared for audiences 16 and up.

Mad Max meets X-Men: First Class in the first book of the Return to Eden trilogy by the best-selling author of The Black Knight Chronicles.


John G. Hartness is a recovering theatre geek who likes loud music, fried pickles and cold beer. John is an award-winning poet, lighting designer and theatre producer, with a theatre career spanning three decades.

His first novel, The Chosen, is an urban fantasy about saving the world, snotty archangels, gambling, tattooed street preachers, immortals with family issues, bar brawls and the consequences of our decisions.

He followed up The Chosen with Hard Day’s Knight, a new twist on the vampire detective novel and the first book in the highly successful series The Black Knight Chronicles. The second book of The Black Knight Chronicles, Back in Black, landed in March 2011 and enjoyed immediate success. Knight Moves, the third Black Knight book, was released in August 2011.

John has been called “the Kevin Smith of Charlotte,” and fans of Joss Whedon and Jim Butcher should enjoy his snarky slant on the fantasy genre.

He can be found online at and spends too much time on Twitter, especially after a few drinks.