5 Horror Masterpieces That Have Influenced My Writing
Updated: Apr 13
I just wrote ‘I’m excited that my second short horror fiction collection is currently on tour with Blackthorn Books’ but then deleted it, because I don’t think that opening does justice to just how fantastic that feeling really is! Having your book out on a ‘blog tour’ means that every day, for a week, one or more bloggers will be reading and reviewing your work – it’s a great way to get lesser-known books out there, particularly things you’ve written in more ‘niche’ genres like short horror fiction, but really there’s nothing better as a writer than finding out what people think of your work. (It’s also pretty terrifying though, because there is of course a possibility that people will really hate it… particularly anyone who doesn’t like stories with a disturbing twist!)
To celebrate this sinister roadshow, I thought I’d make today’s post all about my favourite horror influences. So, without further ado, I’m going to launch into five dark works (encompassing books, movies and video games) that have made a huge impact on me…
1). Mulholland Drive
David Lynch is an artist first and a director second, and his work focuses on symbolism, mood and atmosphere rather than cohesive narrative. In his beloved TV series Twin Peaks, he was assisted by experienced screen writer Mark Frost, who helped to (just about) sustain a story throughout the three seasons of the infamously bizarre television show. I love Twin Peaks, but I also love it when Lynch is liberated completely from the shackles of conventional storytelling, as he was in some of the show's most iconic episodes (episode 8 of season 3 is a mesmerising, monochrome work of scarcely-comprehensible but disturbing genius), and as he is in several of his best movies.
Mulholland Drive, I think, does the best job of distilling Lynch’s dreamlike, surreal creative vision into a single piece of cinema. It recreates almost perfectly the sense of asphyxiating dread that permeates a bad dream – especially the incredible and intense diner scene close to the beginning. It is that scene's sense of palpable, slowly-ratcheting dread that I aim to replicate in my horror writing, as well as the sense of wrongness that saturates many of the film’s scenes and characters: an oddly-phrased line of dialogue, a character acting in a strange or inexplicable way, a shot that lingers on an object in a dark room for an uncomfortably long time.
Stephen King once said that there are three ‘levels’ of horror: there is ‘dread’, the sense that something bad is about to happen, like the feeling of being in a dark room and wondering if there is something in there with you. Then there is ‘horror’, when the lights are switched on and a terrifying monster is revealed… and finally there is ‘disgust’, which he also calls ‘the gross-out’, where you frighten the viewer by making the monster repulsive, slimy, smear the walls with gore, and so on. He views ‘dread’ as the gold standard, the level at which he strives to operate, only dispensing ‘horror’ very scarcely as the pay-off, and trying to rarely rely on the cheap thrills of ‘the gross-out’.
I like this hierarchy (although I do think the gross-out has its place…) and I think that in Mulholland Drive, Lynch has absolutely nailed the ‘dread’, conjuring an almost intolerable ambiance that seems to seep out of the television screen and into your living room. It’s also important to note that the movie does have a story, and that it is not only compelling but surprisingly straightforward once you unpick the symbolism and time-slip presentation – but I don’t claim to have managed this without the aid of various helpful YouTube analysis videos! Click here if you’ve seen the film and would like to watch a clear and concise unravelling of what’s going on.
2). House Of Leaves
This book, written by Mark Danielewski and published in the year 2000, is so original, chilling and intriguing that it almost makes you sad to read it, because you realise how your efforts as a writer will never reach such heights!
Described as a psychological horror thriller, but also as a love story and even a satire on the nature of academic criticism, it’s difficult to write about this incredible novel about without giving away too much. Suffice to say that it is essentially a simple tale about a family moving into a new home, which takes a sudden and alarming twist when they find that the house is one inch larger on the inside than it is on the outside… this inconsequential, but troubling, discrepancy rapidly intensifies, with doorways appearing where there were none previously, and eventually a long hallway materialising inside the structure, leading out into a space that quite simply cannot exist.
It isn’t just the story of this mind-bending house that fascinates – the way the story is told employs a host of mixed media, with the book ostensibly written (or at least compiled and annotated) by a Los Angeles tattooist and troubled jack-the-lad named Johnny Truant. This unreliable narrator has stumbled upon a manuscript in his apartment, written by its recently-deceased former occupant Zampano, and appearing to be a literary critique of a (possibly fictional) documentary called The Navidson Record, which chronicles the family’s exploration of their impossible home. The jumbled mess of notes from Truant, Zampano, and other unidentified editors create the very real sense that you are reading something that has been stitched together over many decades, and might quite possibly absorb you into its dark and hypnotic narrative.
By the time I found myself lost in a shifting, inescapable labyrinth, and having to actually rotate the book in order to read on, I was completely hooked. But it isn’t just this innovative presentation (the book itself seems more like an academic textbook than a novel, with large pages and glossy paper) that keeps you enthralled until the book’s conclusion – the plot is utterly compelling, and represents another example of the deft deployment of ‘dread’ as opposed to ‘horror’. This book absolutely will not disgust you, or even frighten you in the conventional sense; but it will haunt you long, long after you finish reading.
3). The Shadow Over Innsmouth
HP Lovecraft’s impact cannot be overstated. ‘Nerd culture’ has long been enamoured with the cosmic horror that this infamous writer conjured at a time when his contemporaries were mired in predictable and boring ghost stories, and the influence of his tentacled monstrosities and secrets beyond the tolerance of human sanity have permeated board games, table-top role playing culture, video games, offbeat movies and literature for decades. Now that his turn-of-the-19th-century works are in the public domain, their themes and tropes are beginning to saturate the mainstream, with recent movies like The Lighthouse and direct adaptation The Colour Out Of Space giving big-name actors like Robert Pattinson and Nicholas Cage a chance to perform in Lovecraft’s otherworldly limelight.
I recently bought a complete volume containing all of Lovecraft’s works, primarily short fiction with a few novellas, and his back catalogue is certainly varied in terms of both content and quality. Some stories are half-baked, poorly written or outright boring, but the best are undeniably ingenious and enduring pieces of horror fiction. My personal favourite is The Shadow Over Innsmouth, which tells the story of a man who visits a backwater fishing town in Massachusetts. Here he is at first intrigued by the peculiar townsfolk, who seem to share some bizarre traits of inbreeding, including staring, unblinking eyes, clammy skin, and almost fishlike mouths.
I won’t spoil the remainder of the story except to say that the scene in which the narrator realises that some of these Innsmouth folk have come for him in the night is one of the most masterfully written, tense and chilling horror sequences I have ever encountered. The unravelling plot is typically fantastical, but rewarding, and Innsmouth remains one of my favourite ever fictional settings – you can almost smell the rotten, fishy stench seeping out of the pages as you read.
Sadly, Howard Phillips Lovecraft himself represents a prime example of an artist who needs to be separated from his art in order to continue to appreciate it. His racism is well-documented and irrefutable (no, it wasn’t ‘of its time’ – slavery had long since been abolished in the US when Lovecraft wrote blatantly racist works including a poem whose name is so offensive I will not repeat it here). Such is his influence on my own tastes and work that I grapple with this challenge regularly, but I think that to dismiss the work along with the man would be to lie to myself – I do like the best of Lovecraft’s literature, even if its creator was a spiteful and prejudiced person. Those who do not feel comfortable making this sort of separation should definitely steer clear.
4). Lot No. 249
I think I’ve mentioned this before, and I’ve definitely talked about it on my podcast (you can find Dark Natter, where I and my co-host Liam dissect our favourite works of dark fiction, here or wherever you get your podcast fix), but part of the blame for my love of all things dark and sinister has to rest with my good old mum.
Bedtime stories are a pretty standard component of childhood, and so are pre-recorded ones played while you are falling asleep; these days kids probably nod off to the sound of a favourite YouTube video, but back in the 80s when I was a youngster it was cassette tapes. Usually purchased along with a book, whether it was an original children’s story or an abridged version of a classic, the production values on some of these were reasonably high, even featuring sound effects and celebrity voices.
Aware that young me liked ‘weird stuff’, my mum bought me a set of Ladybird adaptations of popular horror novels, each with its own narrated version on cassette. I remember lying there, wide-eyed with terror as I listened to Dracula, or convincing myself that the monstrous creation of Frankenstein was going to burst through the door at any moment. Even The Hound Of The Baskervilles, ostensibly a Sherlock Holmes mystery story, was turned into a chilling horror tale by the creepy-voiced narrator and the frankly terrifying description of the titular canine.
But it was a much less well-known Arthur Conan Doyle story, specifically Lot No. 249, that was the jewel in the crown of this particular collection – or perhaps that should be the sarcophagus in the tomb?
I have since read the original Gothic horror story, which is certainly worth your time, but for me it fails to match the impact of the abridged, allegedly kid-friendly (ha!) version that I endured as a child. You can listen to it here, and if you do, try to imagine being a wimpy kid with a few years to go before leaving primary school. I was absolutely terrified (but utterly gripped) by this story about an Oxford medical student whose neighbour, a keen Egyptologist (a craze that was apparently sweeping the nation when this story was originally published in 1892), acquires an authentic Egyptian mummy at auction. Needless to say, the wrapped and embalmed corpse proves to be less inanimate than the protagonist might expect, and I remember being chilled to the bone by the scene where he awakes in the dead of night to hear someone breathing in his darkened bedroom…
Mum, you’ve got a lot to answer for!
5). Silent Hill 2
I’ve already written a post about this fog-shrouded, hellish town (you can find it here), so I won’t go into huge detail. Suffice to say that, if you’ve only heard of Silent Hill because of the dubious Sean Bean movies, you’re missing out on some of the finest psychological thriller video gaming experiences ever made.
The general consensus, shared by me, is that the series peaked with Silent Hill 2 in 2001; seek it out on the PlayStation 2 if you want to play it, because the remastered PS3 version was a technical car crash, symptomatic of the disrespect with which Konami now treats one of its most beloved franchises. The game tells the story of James Sunderland, a broken man grieving for his deceased wife… until the dead woman sends him a letter, inviting him to meet her in their favourite holiday resort, a quiet lakeside town called Silent Hill… if that isn’t a great horror setup, I don’t know what is!
All four of the original entries in the series, made by the same Japanese development team, are brilliant in their own right, and definitely worth playing if you can get your hands on the necessary technology. Sadly, after the criminally underrated Silent Hill 4: The Room, 'Team Silent' was disbanded and the franchise was outsourced to various overseas developers, with mixed – but not entirely dreadful, despite the way the series is often remembered – results. The series then entered a period of abject neglect when its once-esteemed developer switched its focus to mobile gaming and pachinko machines. Konami, it’s time to do the decent thing: sell me the rights for a tenner and I’ll teach myself how to code so I can bring the series roaring (and growling, and shuffling, and groaning) back to life!
And there you have it. I hope this has been interesting, and has pointed you towards some creepy fiction you might have missed. I’ll be back next week with more dark and sinister ramblings… until then, make sure you keep a pen and paper by your bed, so you can record your most interesting nightmares!
Until next time,