Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Nonfiction

The H Word: Pacing in Horror

How We Need to Let the Story Unfurl

NOTE: There will be spoilers about The Green Knight and A Ghost Story in this essay.

Somewhere along the way we have lost our patience for the slow, unfurling depth of horror. And I think that’s a problem. I’m a member of several film groups on social media, and I constantly see complaints about the slow pace of The Green Knight, or the arthouse vibe and weirdness of Under the Skin, or frustration and boredom at the pie-eating scene in A Ghost Story. No, my friend, no. I disagree. We need to let these stories unfold, we need to sit in the space of that telling, we need to bear witness, and not look away. Let me elaborate.

First, I should probably tell you that I am a maximalist author—so my own work often utilizes heavy setting, all five senses, and a slower pace to give you the foreshadowing, the immersion, the reveal of an expanding horror, the depths of the madness. I might take a long time, as in my current novel, Incarnate, to have the sin-eater in his arctic wasteland, eat a bowl of chili—every bean and spice and tomato a moment of comfort until the sins come out and the meal turns sour. I might tell a story in real time, such as in another story of mine, “Undone,” that is 1,501 words, all one sentence—non-stop anxiety, panic, and fear—as our protagonist runs from dangerous creatures, trying to survive this moment, and save the world. I might take one paragraph to go deep into the fantasy and expansion of a concept, such as a father who might be more than human. Here is that example, from my story, “Asking for Forgiveness” (bit.ly/3HAYCNQ):

“Our father was a rumor, an echo, something only to be seen out of the corner of your eye. Our father was a woodsman, arms like tree limbs, beard as if born from bear, disappearing for days, for weeks, returning with so many things—tiny bird skulls, beads on a string, flowers for mother with purple blossoms and veiny leaves. The wood was stacked along one side of the cabin as high as it could go, the steady chop, the split of the timber, just part of the day, or so we were told. Our father was the cold creek that ran south of our home, filled with silver-backed fish with blood-orange meat, whispering every time we neared it, quenching our thirst, promises of sleepy peace if only we’d step a bit closer. Our father was the frosty moon that pasted the land with silence as our breath formed clouds of pain, feet bruised and bleeding, his laughter running over the mountain, guiding us down one ravine and up the other, wandering from hill to valley and back, some elusive destination always out of reach. Our father was time, stretched in every direction, elastic as a rubber band, as slow and anchored as a wall of granite, our eyes closing, waking up sore, grey where black had been. All lies. Everything she had ever told us was a lie. She never loved us, or it wouldn’t be like this.”

You can see how I use the rule of threes here, and then go beyond that. I call it the “Brian Evenson Rule of Fours” where he lists the usual three items to depict something, but then adds something weird as the fourth element—usually something abstract, and strange. Such as in his story, “Windeye,” a favorite of mine that I included in an anthology I edited, The New Black, and teach in my Contemporary Dark Fiction classes. See how he goes from concrete to abstract, from expected to strange?

“His sister would turn around and smile, her hand gone to knuckles, and say, ‘I feel something. What am I feeling?’ And then he would ask questions. Is it smooth? he might ask. Does it feel rough? Scaly? Is it cold-blooded or warm-blooded? Does it feel red? Does it feel like its claws are in or out? Can you feel its eye move?”

What does it mean to feel red?

I think of the Crawler scene in Jeff VanderMeer’s amazing eco-horror novel, Annihilation, and how he showed pain in a slow, delicious, unsettling way.

“A raging waterfall crashed down on my mind, but the water was comprised of fingers, a hundred fingers, probing and pressing down into the skin of my neck, and then punching up through the bone of the back of my skull and into my brain…and then the pressure eased even though the impression of unlimited force did not let up and for a time, still drowning, an icy calm came over me, and through the calm bled a kind of monumental blue-green light. I smelled a burning inside my own head and there came a moment when I screamed, my skull crushed to dust and reassembled, mote by mote.”

I think of the density in China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, so many examples, from the mutation of the torque, to the Weaver and the web, to the slake moths and the way they sucked the mind dry after hypnotizing their prey. I think of the work of Cormac McCarthy, the slow pace, the layers of language, the depth of experience. I think of the opening to The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and the thing that walks there, alone. We are trying to captivate the reader, not wanting them to look away, creating an immersive, visceral experience. We are casting spells.

And I think about recent films that have enchanted me and refused to let go.

In The Green Knight, a recent A24 favorite of mine (along with Hereditary, The Witch, Enemy, and Under the Skin), we take an epic journey—one spanning space and time—a long trek across wastelands, and through forests, battling local thieves, the temptation of doppelgängers and sirens, quests and fates to be embraced. We need to let these stories unfold—the strum of a cello string, the landscape opening in front of us, the night sky filled with stars that spin and expand as far as the eye can see, and beyond. The Green Knight is two hours and ten minutes long, 130 minutes, and I could have sat in that theater another hour, basking in the colors, the music, and the stories. We need to let these tales become something more than a moment, we need to escape, be taken, staring into the wonder, mesmerized by the horror and possibility.

I think about the pie-eating scene with Rooney Mara in A Ghost Story—which is five minutes long. You may have noticed that both films here were directed by David Lowery. That is not a coincidence. A Ghost Story starts off as a simple film, a death that leads to loss and pain, a ghost in a bed sheet almost comical in its tone and imagery, then turns into something else entirely. I had almost given up on this film, even though it’s only 132 minutes long, something about the ghost feeling off, or silly. And then things shifted. Our story leapt forward and backward, buildings collapsed, bodies decayed, ghosts haunted empty spaces. This film is a haunting meditation on loss, time, and love—and the pie-eating scene is a perfect example of how that unfolds (bit.ly/3ouE8is).

What we witness in this scene is a woman dealing with the loss of her husband, and a friend dropping off a pie—a caring gesture, a bit of kindness, something warm and comforting to eat, whenever she finally gets her appetite back. It really is a test of the audience’s patience to keep this singular camera shot on her, as she sits down, and slowly begins to eat the pie—while the ghost of her dead husband stands by and watches. As the minutes pass, we start to ask ourselves some questions. When is she going to stop eating? How much is she going to eat? She won’t eat the whole thing, will she? Why won’t she stop? Won’t this make her sick? (It does.) But what starts out as a comfort, quickly turns to something more—a mania, a preservation, an undoing, a purging. It’s pretty intense. And by the end of that scene, we have experienced what she has been feeling, and we are immersed in her pain and longing.

I encourage writers and readers of horror to take their time, to not worry about the short story they’ve been assigned that is thirty pages, instead of the usual fifteen, to lean into the moments, to let them wash over us, embracing the horror and the suffering and the wonder. Pick up that epic tome—The Stand, Swan Song, House of Leaves, Perdido—and spend a lifetime in that world. I encourage directors to go longer, and cinephiles to put down their phones (as I finally did when watching A Ghost Story) in order to give the film our full attention. Let the epic journey across swamps, and deserts, and mountains, and forests unfurl as the colors dance and the emotions expand, time shifting, aeons passing by. Let the ghosts haunt us across eternity, sitting in the quiet and empty spaces left by death, and loss, and separation. We need to be less impatient, we need to put on an album and let the whole thing play out, we need to savor every bite, every mourning song of a violin string, every shimmer of sunlight as the palettes of these films expand and enlighten.

Take a deep breath.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Let it all wash over you. Embrace it, give in, and see what amazing sights the horrors have to show you.

Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of eight books—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), Transubstantiate, Herniated Roots, Staring Into the Abyss, Tribulations, Spontaneous Human Combustion (Turner Publishing), and The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, Thriller, and Audie awards. His over 165 stories in print include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), Cemetery Dance (twice), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Shallow Creek, The Seven Deadliest, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), PRISMS, and Shivers VI. Visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com for more information.