Perception, Uncertainty, and Dread: The Horror of Perspective

(published by Interstellar Flight Magazine, June 17, 2019)

How do you make a novel frightening?

Horror movies have a hundred tools to create tension and fear in the audience: sound cues, lighting, the speed of shots, the suddenness of reveals. Visual and auditory content is powerful, immediate, and lends itself well to layering. Movies hold attention well and are short enough to be consumed in a single sitting.

By contrast, books have less to go on: we can only somewhat control the pace at which our audience consumes the story, through tricks of tension, chapter length, complexity or simplicity of prose. A novel is longer than a movie, and slower too, each detail taking more time to communicate. The chances of a reader devouring the whole book in one go are slim, and even in a best-case scenario, the early moments are divorced from the finale by many hours, softening the impact of parallelism and callbacks. And while length can be its own tool (would House of Leaves been as effective as a snappy novella, instead of having long meandering footnotes that are suffused with atmosphere and throw confusion over the specifics of the plot?), it can also drag and delay and bore…

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