Perception, Uncertainty, and Dread: The Horror of Perspective
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.
Authors use prosody and character voice to create atmosphere, and little tricks of language to signal things are about to get bad. We can also borrow from the successful tactics of movies, with variable success. A jump-scare can be mimicked somewhat by the abruptness of a transition, but it’s just as likely to be confusing as frightening.
Where books can shine in a way wholly their own, though, is in perspective. Just as a long tracking shot can summon up dread, the coldness or closeness of the narration can affect our perception of the actions going on in the story. And a book’s potential for intimacy in its narration can be turned and twisted to surprising effect.
In The Luminous Dead, my first novel, we follow a young woman named Gyre down into a treacherous cave. She goes down alone, with only a high-tech suit and a voice in her ear to help her survive. The suit introduces as many problems as it does solutions. It keeps her safe from dangerous falls and manages any medications she might need, but it also requires surgical installation. It renders her environment via sonar in an attempt to keep her concealed from unknown threats, but in doing so introduces room for computer error or lost information.
It leaves her completely at the mercy of her handler, Em, who can control Gyre’s body and influence — or completely change — what Gyre sees.
Gyre experiences the cave at a level of remove that by its very nature introduces errors, misunderstandings, and omissions. The effect is quietly compounded as we, the audience, experience the cave by way of Gyre’s biases, weaknesses, assumptions, and fears. Here, the use of third-person narration plays a clever trick. If the book was written in first person, we would almost expect it to play with the unreliability of the narrator. But we’re trained to think of third person as being factual, accurate, a representation of the world as it is, with just the distance of the camera from the characters up for question.
So when, in The Luminous Dead, Gyre finds incontrovertible signs that somebody else is in the cave with her, that her sensors also see, we default to believing that those signs are real. But when in the next moment that sign is proven to be impossible, and Gyre has no explanation for it and offers no explanation for it to the reader, it throws into question the very reality and reliability of what we’re reading. Was that bolt even there? Was there somebody else on that rope? Can we trust that Gyre would even notice one way or the other?
And that’s the root of the horror of The Luminous Dead. There’s an omnipresent sense of dread throughout, heightened by the fact that even as Gyre can’t trust but must trust Em, we can’t trust Gyre but must in order to continue reading. Even as Gyre can’t see without the limitations of her headlamp, her sonar reconstruction, and the dubious help of Em’s computers, we can’t see without Gyre. We can’t see free of her paranoia, her anxiety, her delusions.
We can’t see what lurks around the corner, but we feel like we should be able to, that in another book we would be able to at least see the hint of what is coming.
Instead, we’re trapped in the suit with Gyre, with no way out, and no relief.
There’s only Gyre, and the cave, and the constant dread and drudgery.
About the Author
Caitlin Starling is a writer of horror-tinged speculative fiction of all flavors. Her first novel, The Luminous Dead, is out now from HarperVoyager. It tells the story of a caver on a foreign planet who finds herself trapped, with only her wits and the unreliable voice on her radio to help her back to the surface. Caitlin also works in narrative design for interactive theater and games, and has been paid to design body parts. She’s always on the lookout for new ways to inflict insomnia. Find more of her work at www.caitlinstarling.com and follow her at @see_starling on Twitter.