YOU CAN LEARN MUCH FROM THE ART OF SLOW-BURN HORROR
Or My Review of the Horror Novel, The Fisherman
You want to write a story that revolves around a serious theme. A story with enough depth that would require you to write a novel.
A novel demands effort and patience from the Reader.
How then do you keep your reader engaged with your serious themes?
A Universal Truth About Genre
It is a truth universally acknowledged by writers, that if you wish your reader to stay engaged till the last word of the last chapter of your tale, it is best you frame your tale within a genre.
Every genre of fiction and film has hooks embedded in it to lure the reader or viewer’s attention. And all readers and viewers arrive willingly because of one desire.
They want to have a good time.
And in the case of horror, they want a good scare.
This means that if you’re a genre writer, you enter an implicit contract with the Reader.
Stay with me through this horror novel, no matter how slow it is, and I will guarantee you a GREAT scare. I will not just entertain you, but I will have you dwell on the dramatic themes in the story.
There are many horror stories that give us superficial thrills. The equivalent of your best friend jumping in front of you with a loud BOO, giving you a fleeting moment of scare, to be followed immediately with laughter. We don’t mind reading a horror novel, as long as we know that by the end of the tale, we can step out into the sunshine and into the comfort of familiarity.
Some stories though, deny us that comfort.
The content of the message, the philosophy behind the horror, lingers with us, long after you close the book. It is as if the sunshine you thought would banish the shadows, or the familiarity that you thought would comfort you, now feels like nothing more than the naïve optimism of a fairy tale happy ending.
The best horror stories remind you that shadows are real. That they linger even in the presence of light. That one must be constantly on guard against their intrusion into your soul.
I am reminded of that in a book I read recently.
This is a horror novel written by John Langan.
He is an American author and writer of contemporary horror. In 2016, he was a Bram Stoker Award winner for his novel The Fisherman.
I did not know what to expect when I opened the book. All I knew was that it was a horror story. I enjoy a good scary tale and so I settled down to what I hoped would be a pleasurable hour of reading. For several chapters, the story unfolded at a leisurely pace about a man who was trying to get over the grief of losing his wife to cancer and eventually found solace in the activity of fishing. For much of the first half of the book, you were reading about how one man coped with grief.
And then he met a colleague, who lost his wife and daughter to a horrific accident. And now you had two men bonding together over fishing as a way to cope with grief.
John Langan wrote in prose that rolled with stately grace. He took his time describing the mental state of his characters. His descriptions were precise. His storytelling moved in a calm, measured rhythm. He was writing about Grief, the toll it takes on us, and how we cope with it.
While I had no problem reading about how these two men tried to grasp some semblance of a foothold on their sanity, in their attempt to ward off the slow tidal wave of grief that lapped at the shores of their psyches, one small question kept flickering in the back of my own mind.
Where is the horror?
What kept me going, page after page was faith in the storyteller.
And the promise of the genre.
The promise that every writer of genre makes in an implicit contract with The Reader.
Be patient and eventually, you will be rewarded with an unforgettable set piece that will leave you reeling.
And by god, The Fisherman delivered in the final third of the book.
John Langan’s structure of his novel was intriguing. He told stories within stories. Stories that circled around each other and then spiraled into each other and then rippled outwards, with every tale connected by its theme of Grief.
As much as The Fisherman is a story about grief, it is also a story that examined the consequences that follow when Man tries to reverse Nature, to subvert Death itself. It is a story about a world that exists below or perhaps just behind the skin of our reality. That with certain rituals and dark sorcery, one is able to cross a threshold and access this alternate reality.
In this alternate reality, there exists a Sea, whose waters are black, in whose black waters, swims a Creature. I will not tell you about the nature of this creature except to say that it is found in a well-known myth. And how the capturing of such a sea creature will enable one to subvert Death. Bring back the lives of your loved ones.
I finally understood why the book was titled The Fisherman, with the “F” in caps.
Here’s a sample of description.
For a moment, Jacob’s mind insists that what arcs out of the water is an island, because there is no living creature that big in all of creation. Then it moves, first rising even higher, into a more severe arch, then subsiding, lifting itself from the waves at both ends while relaxing its middle into a gradual curve, the whole of its dull surface traversed by the ripples of what Jacob understands are great muscles flexing and releasing, and there’s no doubt this is alive.
And here’s a glimpse of the Fisherman, as described by John Langan.
I glanced at the Fisherman, held fast beside us. With his skin bleached and worn by brine, his scraggle of a beard a-crawl with something like sand lice, his robes grown part of his body through the hooks that had driven them into him, he looked almost a natural formation himself. His white eyes stared at the colossal form to which he was connected with such intensity, it was no trouble believing that all his being was bent to his struggle with it.
And the sea of black.
I’ve stood on the shore of an ocean whose waves were as black as the ink trailing from the tip of this pen. I’ve watched a woman with skin pale as moonlight open her mouth, and open it, and open it, into a cavern set with rows of serrated teeth that would have been at home in a shark’s jaw.
When a writer delivers a story in a particular genre, he makes a promise to the reader. A sacred promise that every writer implicitly makes when he sets pen to paper. That he will revise his prose until the reading of it flows as smoothly as silk. That one section of a plot will seamlessly slide into another with well-oiled ease. That he will deliver the requisite emotion in the genre he chooses to tell his story. For horror, it must be fear. And that being the case, a writer is allowed all the latitude and time he desires to get to the emotion of fear. But get there he must. And the longer he takes, the greater the expectation on the part of the reader that the horror set piece will be grand.
If you can pull it off, the emotion will linger in the mind of the audience long after they turn the final page.
Such is the art of the slow-burn horror.
Such is the art of The Fisherman.