11.21: Q&A on Elemental Horror, with Steve Diamond

Steve Diamond joins us for our third and final Elemental Horror episode as we field your questions about this particular building block. Here are the questions we selected from your submissions:

  • If I want to make peanut butter terrifying without being silly, how do I do that?
  • What is your personal line between horror and “gore-nography?”
  • How do you avoid going too far with graphic elements?
  • Soundtracks are huge for horror movies. How do you set the mood without this tool?
  • What’s the best way for a thriller writer to edge into writing horror?
  • How do you decide when to show the monster, and how does it change the story when that happens?

Credits: This episode was recorded by Daniel Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson. 


Outline a story in which your character must choose to do something horrific.

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, narrated by Robertson Dean

10 thoughts on “11.21: Q&A on Elemental Horror, with Steve Diamond”

  1. As I was listening to this episode and partly because of the thriller question I was thinking about horror and its relationship with the other elemental genres. I was curious about how wonder would pair with horror and how this pairing would differ from idea and horror. I would like some advice on how to write horror and wonder together and to describe something that evokes both wonder and horror.

    1. I suggest looking at Hyperion by Dan Simmons. This frame story looks into the lives of several pilgrims visiting an alien world looking for a creature known as the Shrike and why they are making that pilgrimage. I read each tale with a growing sense of wonder and dread. Simmons brilliantly combines the “that’s so cool,how does he think this stuff up” factor with the “this is truly awful” of horror.
      In an idea-horror story I would expect more of an exploration why some idea is so extremely scary, such as is done in 1984 by George Orwell, with and idea so powerful and horrible that we now have the term “Orwellian” in our language.

  2. I think China Mieville is a good author to look at for an example of wonder/horror pairings. He tends to emphasize the wonder more than the horror in the books where they both show up, but both are very much present.

    His novels “The Scar” and “Kraken: an Anatomy” are both great examples of this. His book “Perdido Street Station” is also amazing, but it’s an earlier work, and I think the others I mentioned do a better job of mixing the genres together. They’re all worth reading, though, if you find the time.

    As for someone who’s more Idea/Horror than Wonder/Horror, I’d suggest Peter Watts’s novel “Blindsight,” and possibly its sequel “Echopraxia.” They’re alien invasion science fiction books, but with tons of focus on just how alien the aliens are, and use that lens to emphasize the strangeness of humanity’s own brain, once it’s put into situations it isn’t built for. They’re both creepy and well-researched.

  3. So, at the end of the elemental horror, are you stuck in a corner, shivering and terrified? Never fear, the frightful foursome and Steve Diamond are here to answer your questions! And you can read all about it, either in the archives or over here


    Now, why is that cello suddenly playing? Is there a shadow in the corner? Whoops… time to run!

  4. Daniel, I’d suggest that wonder is a necessary part for horror to work well. Look at all successful horror books or movies – the main villain or situation is almost always something that creates wonder. You see, when we see things that are new and strange that are positive (superheroes, etc.) or neutral (most environments in stories), we feel a sense of wonder. If the thing that is new and strange is negative, we feel a sense of dread. When that new and strange thing that is negative begins to act on us, we feel a sense of horror. At least that’s my take on it.

  5. Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is palatable even to non-horror fans. While the themes are dark, Matheson’s approach isn’t graphic and leaves some small element of hope for humanity, particularly in the character of Ruth.

    One fascinating aspect (and perhaps horrific, for some), is how protagonist Robert Neville comes to accept/understand the perspectives of his antagonists towards the end of the novel. This “conversion” isn’t as pronounced as the conversion presented in 1984, but it lends depth and finality to the book. Great recommendation. Thanks, Dan.

  6. Just a note of thanks: I am currently writing a book with a touch of horror as a sub-genre and found this suite of episodes just uber, super helpful. You always help me focus my thoughts and feel like I’ve got smart friends on my side.

    In fact (hope this isn’t too self-promote-y) the book you’re helping with is Warlock Holmes 3. The first book came out last week and is doing very well. (Looks like most Barnes and Nobles got 6, put them out front and a good third of the stores are sold out, already! Woot!) From day 1, Writing Excuses has been there. You guided me through the draft, the revision, the agent chase, cons, publishing, everything. There is no single step of this whole, wonderful nightmare that you didn’t help me do. I don’t think I’d have JABberwocky without you. I don’t think I’d have Titan without you. Not sure I’d be an author without you.

    Thank you, from the bottom of my heart,
    -G. S. Denning

  7. I’m just a couple min into the podcast but I wanted to leave a comment with a thought on the “peanut butter” scenario. For some reason I just didn’t think that the gross out descriptions of the peanut butter (i.e. beginning to separate, etc), or the fact that someone may be allergic to it were all that “horrific.” Encounters has always been one of my all time favorite movies since I was a kid, but I never thought it was scary, even then. I love that scene with the appliances going crazy, but I always found more ‘wonder’ and ‘suspense’ in it than horror. Maybe I’m numb to old suspense because I watch a lot of new horror. Then again, the old Alfred Hitchcock films always seem to do the trick to this day. Anyway, I was thinking that at least for me, if I were to write a scary peanut butter scene, I’d just go the simple and often used but effective route of: let’s say you have a character who has had someone close to them die recently or in the past. It’s a sore spot for this person. Has been his whole life. And for a while, you wonder if he is being haunted by this person (for example a little brother?). Little things keep showing up here and there, items misplaced, etc. Maybe something sinister seems to be proliferating in his house over the days. At some point, a jar of peanut butter is sitting on the counter just like the way his brother used to leave it when he was done with it. Nothing gross or out of place in any strange way, just the jar… but it makes him wonder. Peanut butter sandwiches were his brother’s favorite afterschool snack. It makes him wonder. Way later on, perhaps days later, he finds some crumbs on the floor by the couch perhaps. Just little subtle hints that what he’s fearing is perhaps true. It makes him question all kinds of things, his own sanity. It’s a pretty stock example, but I think it’s an effective one. If anyone wants to know how to do this kind of thing masterfully (not to mention perhaps one of the greatest modern horror novels ever written), check out SK’s The Shining. Even today, it scares. But it doesn’t go for cheap thrills. The level of incredible dread that builds and builds until the end is phenomenal. All throughout the story (which is largely about a haunting) little bits of subtle imagery is dropped here and there to build a sense of uneasiness. Later there are some more detailed gross out gags, but the gas that gets us from A to B is definitely the dread the characters feel over and over again from all these things/events popping up all over, making them question their own sanity while dealing with their own personal problems. It’s a brilliant novel for any budding novelist, not to mention horror novelist.

  8. If I may make just one more recommendation for people wanting to delve into this genre and wondering about great novels that aren’t typical horror fare but still biting your nails off suspenseful with horror being the driving element. It’s my favorite horror novel in the top five novels of all time for myself: Misery by SK. The Shining is very dark, horrific, and depressing in ways. It can be a difficult read if you don’t want to have really dark and terrible images seared into your brain years after the fact. If you just want to know what the genre does brilliantly and not have too many gross outs or horrible images, I’d recommend hands down, Misery. It’s the only horror novel I would also dub a laugh out loud dark comedy. Those who’ve read it and love it know why. It does everything a novel should do. It’s suspenseful, at times horrific but it doesn’t go too far in my opinion, sad, ironic, playful, and just a lot of fun. If you’re interested in writing period, you can learn so much from this one. It’s short and sweet too! I consider it SK’s most perfect self contained novel.

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