Recently, I interviewed horror writer Paul Tremblay for the Boston Globe. We spoke for an hour about his new short story collection, The Beast You Are, and about writing in general. The fun thing about interviewing a horror writer is that when I told him that part of his book was disturbing, his face lit up and he said, “Thank you!” (And, of course, he was right to take it as a compliment!)

American Gothic Tales

In the course of our conversation, he mentioned an old  collection of short stories called American Gothic Tales, edited by Joyce Carol Oates. Although it was published in the 1990’s, used copies are still available. The collection follows the history of horror writing, including stories by Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edith Wharton, Poe (of course), Charlotte Perkins Gilman (of course), and continuing on through Shirley Jackson and up to more contemporary artists.

It’s fascinating to read such a varied collection and to see the different ways that a single genre can be adapted by wildly different imaginations over hundreds of years. 

Building Mood

The fascinating thing about horror stories (including ghost stories and tales of psychological terror, like classics “The Yellow Wallpaper” and” The Lottery”) is the way these stories build mood.

Often, the setting descriptions are not ornately frightening. Instead, they will seem fairly straightforward, but will contain a single detail that unnerves the reader: yellow wallpaper that seems to move, a black cat with a white blaze across its chest that shifts and changes, a factory where the young female workers are so pale that they seem almost blue. An ordinary setting that contains an element that defies reason seems to be very effective for evoking horror. 

If you’ve ever wanted to try writing a scary story, I highly recommend reading Tremblay’s new collection and experimenting with the short story form. See if you can come up with a setting element that doesn’t behave the way it should. Just make sure you leave on a nightlight!