Dark Chapters Presents: Kill for a Copy—Some Words on Writing Short Horror Fiction

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“Writing a short story is one of the most difficult disciplines there is. Writing a short horror story is even more difficult. The reason being that most horror stories tend to be concise narratives or sick jokes. The latter is a trap I’ve fallen into myself. You spend four or five pages describing and setting up characters or story only so you can deliver a “punch line” at the end. “And she held out her hand revealing his freshly torn out heart,” that kind of thing. Writing a short story and a screenplay I’ve always thought are similar because you’ve got limited time and space to get character across so it needs to be done economically. With a novel you’ve got 90-150,000 words to convey the same things so, if you want to, you can take your time. Short stories add restraints that a novelist doesn’t encounter. There are no restraints when you’re writing a novel. You make up your own rules to a degree. Having said that, the need for brevity and pace has always been something that attracted me as a writer both in short and full length fiction. In a short horror story there’s no time for waffle, no space for superfluous material. Short horror stories are bullshit free. Or they should be.

Some of the most memorable pieces of writing I’ve ever enjoyed have been short stories. “The Graveyard Rats” by Henry Kuttner, “The Outsider” and “Pickman’s Model” by H.P. Lovecraft, “The Little Girl Eater” by Septimus Dale, “Children of the Corn” by Stephen King. “The Bats” and “The Fur Brooch” by Dulcie Gray. “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs. There are many more. All those short stories made an indelible mark on me as a reader and also as a writer. They all have that pace, economy of language and lack of bullshit. And they work brilliantly.

A novel can ease you in. A short story should throw you in.

Some ideas are just better suited to the short story format. They don’t work across 90,000 words. Some ideas have an impact that is only achievable in 10,000 or 20,000 words. One short horror story which appeared in the Pan Books of Horror Stories series, “Tanith” is only about 100 words! What many writers fail to realize is that a story should be told in as many words as it takes. It’s as simple as that. If you can tell your story in 10,000 then do it. If it takes 120,000 then you do that. Never add extra detail just for the hell of it. Don’t expand characterisations because you think you should. Write from your heart. If it feels right then chances are it is! The writers of the stories contained within this volume have raecognised the restraints the short story puts upon them but they’ve embraced that. They used brevity, economy of language and have thankfully dispensed with the bullshit. For that they should be congratulated.

There is nothing worse than a story that is stretched beyond its limits. A story that the author hasn’t realized has run its course. My own novels have sometimes been criticised for their shortness but any critics who have been dumb enough to do that have missed the point (most critics usually do). When someone reads horror they usually do it to be entertained. They don’t want superfluous waffle or self-indulgence. They want to be gripped. They want to be frightened. They want to be taken on a ride they cannot control. One where the only person who knows the destination is the author. And readers will forgive the writer anything if he twists and turns on that journey. They might even forgive him if the ride is a bit bumpy and uncomfortable.

The writers of these stories you’re about to read have done the same thing and they’ve done it brilliantly. If these stories had been any longer they wouldn’t have worked. They probably wouldn’t have worked as novels.

The art of the short story is one that has been perfected by some authors after years of honing their craft. The stories offered here are the work of authors who are still learning and some who are just starting out. Where they go on their journeys no one knows yet but that is part of the fun. Just like the stories themselves.

Personally, I’ve written a fair few short horror stories over the years, published in everything from magazines and newspapers to radio and TV. One story I did for Radio was read out as if it was a news story and, within 2 minutes of broadcast, the radio station had CNN on the phone wanting to know where the explosion had occurred and exactly how many fatalities there’d been. That was fun. But, believe me, I’m still learning this discipline. I’m not sure that anyone ever masters it completely but we all carry on writing, hoping we hit the right spots. Some of my stories have been so bad I’d never even consider getting them into print. Writing takes courage as well as skill, you know. Elements of both are displayed in this volume so read on and, if the writers have done their jobs properly, hopefully you’ll still be reading deep into the night.

If they’ve really done their jobs you’ll be awake long into the night anyway, because they’ll have scared you into not sleeping. So enjoy and then sleep tight. Or maybe not.

– Shaun Hutson, Foreword to Kill for a Copy, Dark Chapter Press, 2016

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