Shock & Awe: Writing a horror scene from the King of Horror
Last night, after a few beers in the Crescent’s Norman Baker Lounge, I sat up reading Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot:
“Something had awakened him.
He lay still in the ticking dark, looking at the ceiling.
A noise. Some noise. But the house was silent.
Mark Petrie turned over in bed and looked through the window and Danny Glick was staring in at him through the glass, his skin grave-pale, his eyes reddish and feral. Some dark substance was smeared about his lips and chin, and when he saw Mark looking at him, he smiled and showed teeth grown hideously long and sharp.” (272)
“He didn’t turn on the light. He mounted the steps, one by one, avoiding the sixth, which creaked. He held on to the crucifix and his palm was sweaty and slick.
He reached the top and turned soundlessly to look down the hall. The guest room door was ajar. He had left it shut. From downstairs came the steady murmur of Susan’s voice.
Walking carefully to avoid squeaks, he went down to the door and stood in front of it. The basis of all human fears, he thought. A closed door, slightly ajar.
He reached out and pushed it open.
Mike Ryerson was lying on the bed.” (234)
“The sheet covering Marjorie Glick’s body had begun to tremble. A hand fell out below the sheet and the fingers began to dance jaggedly on the air, twisting and turning.
‘My Christ, am I seeing this?’ Jimmy whispered. His face had gone pale and his freckles stood out like spatters on a windowpane.
‘—follow me all the days of my life,’ Ben finished. ‘Jimmy, look at the cross.’
The cross was glowing. The light spilled over his hand in an elvish flood.
A slow, choked voice spoke in the stillness, as grating as shards of broken crockery: ‘Danny?’
Ben felt his tongue cleave to the roof of his mouth. The form under the sheet was sitting up. Shadows in the darkening room moved and slithered.
‘Danny, where are you, darling?’
The sheet fell from her face and crumpled in her lap.
The face of Marjorie Glick was a pallid, moonlike circle in the semi-dark, punched only by the black holes of her eyes.” (300-301)
In dissecting these three passages, the first thing a reader may notice is the short length of the scenes meant to depict horror. When it comes to the actual horror, King often comes right to the point. Absent from the passages are an exposition of scene or an in-depth stream-of-consciousness by the character.
In the first passage, King relies on the strangeness of the situation to provide the horror. He doesn’t get into Mark’s head nor does he waste the reader’s time describing the boy’s bedroom (almost anyone should be able to imagine a twelve-year-old boy’s bedroom), so the sentences here are stripped down to the bare essentials. Declarative sentences, short, the most colorful adjective used ticking describes the dark, not the house or the room or the boy. We don’t even know if Mark sleeps in a twin bed or a full bed or if his parents splurged on a queen-sized, before we find Danny Glick, “his skin grave-pale, his eyes reddish and feral.” But King does not overwrite the horror in these scenes, also. He doesn’t waste a multitude of words to try and over-describe the monster. Word economy is extended to the horror—the Unnatural—and in the end the reader is disturbed not by the flourishes of too many adjectives to describe the boy, but just that the dead boy (with a few highlighted points of interest—the eyes, the something smeared around his lips) now floats outside Mark’s second story window.
The horror is also underplayed as Ben walks up the stairs to investigate a noise in his house, a noise that ends up being the dead Mike Ryerson returning to feed. I suppose in a nineteenth century gothic novel we’d have a few paragraphs inside Ben’s head, and a few more describing in detail the furnishings and decorations of the hall, before we’d actually get to the bedroom and the dead man, returned. The same scene from Mary Shelley’s prose might actually take several pages. But King doesn’t do this. Maybe it is with the advent of television and movies that means that readers don’t require such exaggerated descriptive and illustrative passages anymore. And while King does get into Matt’s head, he is succinct in his phrasing, and sums up what would have been paragraphs of Victorian stream-of-conscious in an economic phrase, loaded with levels of meaning: “The basis of all human fears, he thought. A closed door, slightly ajar.”
In the third passage, King’s scene begins with Ben Mears and Dr. Jim Cody at the county funeral home, waiting for Marjorie Glick—who just passed away—to rise as a vampire. Realizing they don’t have supernatural protection, they create a makeshift cross out of tongue depressors and tape, and Ben begins to bless the “cross” by reciting a famous Psalm, even as Marjorie begins to rise. The economy of King’s language is still felt, though the passage is longer. He uses some great metaphors: freckles like “spatters on a windowpane” when Dr. Cody goes pale; a glow on a cross like an “elvish flood;” a voice “as grating as shards of broken crockery. The horror is written as simple declarative sentences with some adjective description but not much else. Ultimately, it is the strangeness of the situation, again, the dead body, sitting up on the table.
It is King’s succinct prose in this early novel that truly captures the horror, and this style of writing would work outside of a horror novel, as well, and has been duplicated in a weird fiction, speculative fiction, Sci-Fi, and fantasy. King succeeds with this novel where others have failed because he does not over-try to scare you.
Upon first glance, taking each sentence above individually, there is nothing horrific in the lines written, but when combined with his style of prose, his three-dimensional characters and their relationships and interactions, these few lines of unsettled strangeness punctuate the novel and truly show the reader the horror in a way few authors are capable.
I’m surprised to see the sun rising, and I put the book down thinking that my first night at the Crescent has yielded nothing in the way of the supernatural, till I look at the closet and notice the door open slightly. I know I had closed it. I can’t sleep or even relax if a closet door is open. Especially walk-in closets like this one. I had shut it and heard the latch click and had given it a tug or two, well aware this was an old building. I had settled in with my book only after I was satisfied that the door was shut.
Only now, the door is open a little. And the disturbing thing is, it had opened at some point in the night when I sat not ten feet away, and I hadn’t noticed it.