How to write horror

AJ Kirby, author of the horror novels Sharkways, Paint This Town Red and Bully, among others, invites us into the dark world of horror writing.

Artwork cr Louise Boulter

Artwork © Louise Boulter

My name is Andy Kirby and I am a horror writer. And I suppose you could say that I have a habit: I’ve written around ten published horror short stories and several horror novels, including Bully and Paint This Town Red.

Bully by AJ KirbyThere, I’ve said it. I’ve come out and admitted my embarrassing secret it to everyone. I’ve stood in front of you all and shown you that skeleton in my closet and I’ve left it up to you to judge me.

Only, I’m not embarrassed to be a horror writer – stop that sneering at the back there, Miss Literary Fiction – in fact I couldn’t be prouder. Good horror fiction is as good as any other writing; in fact, good horror writing transcends the constraints of genre. When it is good it is very, very good; it can entertain, send shivers down the spine, it can act as a psychological punch-bag, it can make you laugh and make you cry. It can be something devastatingly original, stunningly beautiful, and true.

But of course, when horror writing is bad, it is very, very bad. It is horrid. So bad, in fact, that I have to start articles with this one as some sort of exercise in self-justification. We’ve all read badly written set-piece driven pieces in which wooden characters lurch from one disaster to the next with no development at all. We’ve all read the stereotypes: the sexy vampire; the blood-thirsty zombies; the throat-ripping werewolves. We might have even stumbled across terrible fan-fiction stories in which we end up rooting for the bad guy just so we don’t have to suffer any more of what can only loosely be described as the story.

So let me draw a line under all of that. Do not tar the rest of us with the same brush. Bad writing can be seen in any literary field, not just horror. We all have skeletons in our closet. Yes, even you, Miss Literary Fiction.

Embrace horror’s talent for reinvention

Paint This Town Red by AJ KirbyOf course, horror scares a lot of people. And I don’t mean the actual writing here, I mean the genre itself. You see, the horror genre has come back from the dead so many times that it has almost become like one of its own tired clichés. It gets written off and written off so many times but keeps jumping right on out of the grave, ready to bite you in the butt. There are lots of reasons for this, but perhaps the most important one is the fact that horror is absolutely brilliant at reinventing itself.

Even in the last ten to fifteen years we’ve seen huge changes. In film, we’ve seen old school horror replaced by postmodern, tap-a-knowing-finger-on-the-end-of-the-nose horror (such as the Scream movies), which was then replaced by honest-to-goodness splatterpunk (think Hostel and Saw). We saw riveting psychological horror, in films such as The Others, and we saw zombie slapstick in Shaun of the Dead. In fiction, perhaps the most mixed up, genius book of the genre has been the zombie-Jane Austen mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, in which Lord Darcy and co. meet some bone-crunching flesh-eaters with hilarious consequences.

Horror at its best is hard to pin down. It is highly inventive, stereotype-defying and ground-breaking.

Perhaps the reason why horror is so hard to pin down is because ‘horror’ actually covers a huge range of different forms and styles of telling the story. Which is actually very freeing for the writer. Readers of horror go into it aware that conventions are there to be played with, and that the unexpected is to be expected. At its best horror writing, and horror writers appeal to our innermost desires and fears. Always have done, always will.

Let your characters drive the plot

Sharkways by AJ KirbRight now, and for the past few years, horror has been enjoying renaissance, with horror novels, films and computer games all taking top billing.

Part of this is due to timing. Let me speak plainly here; the world’s a mess. We have global pandemics, the economy is gradually disappearing up its own arsehole, we’ve got war and famine all over the place. The four horsemen are riding hard now and people are frightened again.

Horror has its place, and right about now, it seems to be governing just about everything. (And conversely, good horror writing is a great way of escaping the terrifying reality. Getting lost in a good horror book can take your mind off things.)

So why wouldn’t you want to indulge your dark side and read or write horror fiction? Certainly, I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. But if you have an over-active imagination; if you look over at the shadows on the dark side of the street and see terrifying monsters; if you have something original to say, then horror might just be the genre for you. But remember; let your characters drive the story as much as your plot does – we have to believe in them to be scared by or for them. If they aren’t real to the reader, no one’s going to care what happens, and if the readers aren’t emotionally involved, you’re going to have a lot of trouble terrifying them!

Choose your avenue

There are plenty of avenues for your horror writing. A cursory search of the internet will provide you with blood-slavering hoards of them. So take care to read the titles before you submit anything.

Look out for quality titles. See who they’ve published before. Would your work be a good fit? Do they pay or not? (But bear in mind that this is not the be-all and end-all; often having your work published by a widely-read title will help you attain a loyal following which is worth its weight in gold.)

For short stories, the US publications Necrotic Tissue, Champagne Shivers and Graveside Tales are open to unagented submissions (although check their website to see whether there is any particular theme they are looking for.) In the UK, Black Static magazine has built up a great reputation, as has the Nemonymous series, edited by Des Lewis. Wild Wolf Publishing are an excellent UK publisher of book length works, and definitely have my seal of approval as they have having published my supernatural tale of revenge from beyond the grave, Bully.

Perhaps the best helping-hand I could give you would be to sign up to Ralan and Duotrope. Both give up to date listings of open markets, dead markets, calls for submissions, new anthologies, who’ll pay and what they’ll pay, and even expected response times.

Don’t let anyone pigeonhole you

The horror world really is your oyster. And what must always be considered is that writing horror is great fun. I’ve had short stories published in many of the places I’ve listed above, and all have treated my work with the respect that it deserves. Reader comments have been in the majority positive, but there have also been helpful criticisms along the way, too.

And remember genre doesn’t have to pigeonhole you.

If anyone tries to, tell them this little snippet of wisdom: three films which are in most people’s ‘Top Ten of All Time’ lists are Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and Stand By Me. What do they all have in common? They were penned by the horror genius that is Stephen King. (And all aspiring writers should get a hold of King’s On Writing, which is just about the best guide to learning ‘the craft’ that you could get your blood-spattered paws on.)

So come along and join us. We don’t bite. Much…

Author AJ KirbyAJ Kirby is the award-winning author of six published novels (Sharkways; Paint this Town Red; Perfect World; Bully, 2009; The Magpie Trap, and When Elephants Walk through the Gorbals), two collections of short stories (The Art of Ventriloquism, a collection of crime shorts, and Mix Tape), three novellas (The Haunting of Annie Nicol; The Black Book and Call of the Sea), and over fifty published short stories, which can be found widely in print anthologies, magazines and journals and across the web. Find out more at

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