Having read and watched a few horrors lately, I have concluded that it is not necessarily how much gore, spooky ghosts, or psychological elements there are in fiction, but how the element of horror is crafted that really matters.
A couple of months ago, I found myself reading a book from a series (Dark Ink) that I couldn't quite work out. It was under the horror section at Waterstones and the synopsis sounded interesting but didn't live up to what was promised. The start of the book was something I would consider as an unnecessary amount of shocking gruesome imagery, which is sometimes okay as long as there is a good explanation for it, but that first section of the book had nothing to do with the rest of it. I think the author was just trying to reel the reader in using the shock factor.
When I eventually finished that book, and trust me, it was a struggle for reasons I'm not going to go into right now, I was so sorely disappointed that I went in search of works of older, and more popular horror fiction.
One of the books that stood out to me the most was The Picture of Dorian Gray. Now, I know you're probably thinking Dorian Gray is not typically referred to as a horror, but the themes of the book very much reflect the common fear of ageing in our modern-day. The horror in this theme lies in the loss of innocence and reputation as a result of age. In this story, it is suggested by Lord Henry that the soul can be seen in the physical appearance of a man/woman. So, wishing to preserve his youth and beauty, Dorian Gray sees an opportunity to commit sin without consequence when his portrait ages instead of him.
What this signifies to the reader is that those who are considered attractive are more likely to hold a clean reputation. However, it also suggests that with age comes time in which an individual will fall under the influence of sin and crime. This is a fear that society unconsciously tries to reverse too often.
The idea of this inspired me to write the short story The Angel of Art. This short story is based on the idea that an individual's visible guilt can be masked with beauty alterations. The protagonist of this story has a dark past that he doesn't regret but believes he can hide by changing his looks to appear younger. However, the surgeon that performs these alterations refuses to alter his body because he refuses to let the protagonist fully escape with the crimes he has and will commit.
The horror theme in this short story does not lie with what the protagonist's experiences but with what the reader can imagine the protagonist getting away with if it was possible for a criminal to pass under the radar. It questions the scientific advantages of what someone could make use of. It also experiments with the idea of perception and judgement on another person depending on their physical appearance.
What I like about this sort of story is that it is discreet. The horror aspect is drawn from our own imaginations rather than explicitly given to us. We do not need descriptions of bloodthirsty murder. We do not need scenes detailing each and every moment of the protagonist's fear. We just need a little prompting in imagining those things for ourselves. From reading classic horror to newly released novels, I have found the best books to have been those that make you question yourself. Question the boundaries of your own imagination. What we find from reading openly descriptive horror is that there is a certain point in which a certain event ends. A murder, for example, is horrific up until it ends. A scene of a ghost chase ends. However, if the writing is good enough that it leaves you reimagining what could have happened, there are just no limits as our imagination knows no boundaries. And when the fear instilled in us is one that is reflective of the world around us, the horror aspect can be powerful.