Deborah Sheldon is a professional writer from Melbourne, Australia. Some of her latest releases, through several publishing houses, include the collection 300 Degree Days and Other Stories, the novella Thylacines, the collection Perfect Little Stitches and Other Stories, and the novel Devil Dragon. Upcoming titles include the novel Contrition later in 2018, and a retrospective dark fiction collection in 2019.
Her short fiction has appeared in many well-respected magazines such as Quadrant, Island, Aurealis, SQ Mag, and Midnight Echo. Her work has been shortlisted for numerous Aurealis Awards and Australian Shadows Awards, long-listed for a Bram Stoker Award, and included in “best of” anthologies. Other credits include TV scripts, feature articles, non-fiction books, and award-winning medical writing.
I’ve been a professional writer for over 30 years. When I started writing horror fiction in late 2014, I quickly developed a fondness for monsters. Perhaps this was due, in part, to my love of films such as King Kong (both 1933 and 1976 versions), Aliens, and The Thing. While film techniques include visuals, sound effects and music to produce goose bumps, no such tools are available to authors. So how does a writer make a monster scary using just words on a page? There are different ways – perhaps as many ways as there are horror writers – but here are a few of my favourite approaches.
I don’t write fantasy or sci-fi where a fictitious world is chock-full of alien beasts. Generally, my preference is to write stories about one type of monster running amok in the real world of today. (There are exceptions: my collection Perfect Little Stitches and Other Stories includes stories set in previous centuries.) As a reader, I’m anxious – and therefore invested – if a character’s stable life is suddenly turned upside-down by an unexpected or terrible event. I think most people experience chaos as inherently frightening. My novel Devil Dragon is about a prehistoric reptile called the Varanus priscus. Setting its rampage in the present day enhances the scare factor because the monster doesn’t belong inside our natural order; this is the embodiment of chaos. To further heighten the yin-yang tension, my main character, Dr Erin Harris, is a scientist who believes in evidence, rules, predictable outcomes, and things that can be measured and explained.
My collection Perfect Little Stitches and Other Stories is filled with all kinds of monsters, both real and mythological. Combing through legends is particularly inspiring. My novelette “The Again-Walkers” features a kind of vengeful, shape-shifting revenant from ninth century Denmark. Since the Vikings weren’t good at record-keeping, there is scant data on the again-walker, so I could allow my imagination to take flight.
This “embroidery” approach is how I usually make monsters. I take an existing creature, whether real or fabled, and put my own spin on it. In my novella Thylacines, I feature the real (but extinct) Tasmanian tiger, and ramp it up by making my fictional tigers genetically engineered. Naturally, chaos ensues! In Devil Dragon, the only evidence of the actual Varanus priscus is a few bones, which suggest it was related to the Komodo dragon. This lack of information about the creature allowed me to add my own scary flourishes. Just to be sure, I consulted with herpetologists to make my monster as plausible as possible.
I think monsters need to be credible if they are to be frightening. And one of the easiest ways to achieve credibility is to keep the monster consistent in its biology. For example, if a monster’s principle method of getting around is on foot, it shouldn’t be able to fly later on in the story. At least, not without a damn good reason! A reader is willing to suspend his or her disbelief – but only so far. I keep in mind while writing that if I break the rules of my monster’s biology, I will also break the spell for my reader.
Circling back to the fear that chaos evokes, a monster is scary when its behaviour is unpredictable or hard to fathom. In Thylacines, my police officer Janine O’Connell and her K9 partner Zeus come face to face with an escaped thylacine, named T1:
Was T1 curious? Angry? Fearful?Cautious? Despite Janine’s know-how in deciphering canine body language, she felt at a loss. Maybe the moniker “Tasmanian tiger” was accurate. Maybe this animal behaved more like a cat than a dog. Janine had zero experience with cats, spurning them as aloof, snippy, temperamental. […] Could she and Zeus back off? Or were they already embroiled in a fight?Story pacing is critical. If a writer piles one action-packed and gory sequence on top of another, the reader usually feels numb after a few chapters. Suspense interspersed with action is an effective solution. This approach harks back to the grand old Hollywood horror films of the 1930s and 1940s which, because of censorship laws, had to use mood and dialogue to provoke anxiety in the viewer. I believe horror aficionados would appreciate the subtlety of these classic films, such as Cat People and The Body Snatcher.And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, what makes a monster scary is its lack of morality. Kyle Reese, the hero in one of my favourite horror films The Terminator explains this perfectly: “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop – ever – until you are dead.”Now doesn’t that put a shiver down your spine?***WEBSITEGOODREADSFACEBOOKShop Deborah’s books on Amazon!ThylacinesPerfect Little Stitches and Other StoriesDevil Dragon