How can a writer be scary? How can you evoke a sense of fear or menace with the printed word? It is, of course, the question all aspiring authors of a ghost story, or a psychological chiller, must ask themselves. And I was no different.
In the past – in my other books, written under different names – I have sought to entertain, or amuse, or maybe just to divert and inform. But when I sat down to write The Ice Twins I knew that I was seeking a very different reaction. I wanted my readers to be gripped, but frightened. I wanted to make the reader deliciously uncomfortable.
So how to do it? Truth be told, I had no idea. All I had was a location: a very real, very beautiful tidal island (closely associated with Scottish author Gavin “Ring of Bright Water” Maxwell) off the Sleat Peninsula in Skye. The island, owned by friends of mine for 30 years, which I have been visiting all my life, is tiny, remote, inaccessible for much of the day (thanks to those tides); it also boasts a lighthouse, ruined gardens, the odd dead seal on its little silver beaches, and a sturdy yet rundown cottage with a dodgy phone line and very unreliable electricity.
In short, it is the ideal, isolated location for something scary to happen. But what was going to happen on that island? And how could I charge it with literary menace?
The solution was plain. By way of education, I had to read all the classic “scary” novels and stories, to see what they could teach me.
And the first thing they taught me is that writing something sincerely scary is truly difficult. Probably as hard, or harder, as writing something that is consistently laugh-out-loud funny. Too many of the supposedly “classic” chillers, thrillers and ghost stories turned out to be anything but fearsome. They were often well-crafted, some were masterpieces, but they didn’t send a shiver down my reading spine.
In the end I found just five novels and stories that gave me a frisson, and they each taught me something different.
First, The Monkey’s Paw. This is a classic Victorian ghost story, penned by the otherwise entirely obscure W W Jacobs. It concerns a noisome talisman, the severed monkey’s paw of the title, which allows the owner to make three wishes. And yet the wishes always turn out to be a curse: the owner pays a violent price for this gruesome magic charm. I won’t give away the plot, but suffice to say Jacobs invokes an atmosphere of total dread in just five pages. A phenomenal achievement.
From this story I learned the importance of having a creepy high concept at the heart of my book. Soon after that I alighted on my own concept: parents of a dead identical twin, who later realise they might have misidentified the twin that died. So which twin is still with them?
My next successful task was reading The Willows, by Algernon Blackwood, a celebrated short story from 1907. It taught me the importance of creating dark moods through small details of weather and landscape. I don’t mean the clichés of “a dark and stormy night” (though I do have one of those) but a more nuanced ambience of sadness and unease. Grey and wistful drizzle. Ominous but distant thunder. Boats floating alone and unmoored.
Luckily, my northern Scottish location pretty much insisted that I mention the weather. A lot. So including this was easy.
The third book that truly gave me a chill was The Woman in Black, Susan Hill’s much-loved novella of an historic and rural haunting. From this I gleaned how crucial it is to keep the plot tight and twisty. Sometimes you have to throttle back on the spooky atmos, to keep the narrative racing.
My penultimate title was The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson, which has now been made into two Hollywood movies (the initial 60s movie is marvellous; avoid the terrible 90s remake). Jackson’s skill was in creating subtly flaky, unreliable characters. I copied this shamelessly. As it disorientates the reader.
Finally, and fifthly, I read what, to my mind, is not just the greatest chiller of all, but one of the finest (and most underrated) novels of the 20th century: The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty.
I’ve always loved the amazing movie made from this book, but I’d never read the original, best-selling novel before. When I did, I realised that much of the film’s Satanic energy comes directly from the novel. Blatty’s genius was to give his evil presence a personality. The demon possessing the little girl is a living, breathing character, with a dry wit, even a horrible charisma. And yet the demon is properly evil, nonetheless.
The Exorcist taught me that I had to personalise the sense of menace in my book, give the faintly sinister presence a believable human voice. That voice belongs, I hope, to the ice twins. As they finally melt, one into the other.
Did I succeed in writing a scary book? That’s for you to decide. But whatever your opinion, I heartily recommend you try The Exorcist. It really is that good.