Writing Historical Horror: Being a Servant to Two Masters
What, exactly, is historical horror? You’ve probably seen it in movie form already where the term used is ‘costume horror’ or ‘period horror’ (Crimson Peak, The Witch, Black Death, Ravenous, etc.). The generally accepted definition for historical fiction is any history or any events that occurred fifty or more years prior to the current period. So, for example, a story set during WWII would be historic fiction. And horror, well, we all know horror. The monsters and ghouls and things that go bump in the night. But why did I combine the two when I wrote my fourteenth century horror? And what were the special challenges involved?
First a bit of fun:
How You Tell If You’re in a Historical Horror Novel
Scenario: Killer Chasing his/her Victim Through the Woods
- smell of pine
- sound of breathing, footsteps, branches cracking
- cold, fog, rain, darkness
- echoes are always fun, especially in a forest
Historical Horror Novel
- smell of pine that reminds the victim of a childhood memory involving a nanny, a tea party, and a younger sibling who disappeared in mysterious circumstances in a forest
- cracking branches reminiscent of the shots fired during the Crimean War, and the breathing like that of the soldiers rushing forward into battle, both intensifying the current dire situation
- cold, fog, rain, and darkness that feels like the morning of the battle, before the sun had risen on what would be a Very Tough Day indeed
Scenario: Summer Camp
- sun, water, canoes
- scary myth or legend
- creepy, overprotective mother
- tastefully splattered blood and/or organs
Historical Horror Novel
- summer camps weren’t really a thing until quite recently, so setting is now a knight’s manor and the young men sent there to become squires
- scary myth or legend – there’s ALWAYS a scary myth or legend, no matter how far you go back – useful for keeping squires in line
- creepy, overprotective mother – no matter the time period, mothers will always do what’s necessary to promote their children. Always.
- splattered organs and blood – almost a daily concern, depending on your time period, so file under ‘everyday possibility’ rather than ‘horror’
Scenario: Dead Body Found in Pantry
- tastefully strewn organs
- large clean cut through which intestines dangle
- facial expression of the body – frozen in a scream of terror
Historical Horror Novel
- hero or heroine turn away just as they’re about to see the body, thus sparing the reader the awful intestinal display details
- facial expression that hints at terror but displays disappointment with the way things ended up and surely the kitchen staff are to blame for this travesty
In all seriousness, there are challenges when combining these two genres. The line between the two can be vague, in part because our perception is that the past is already a time of horrors, without any supernatural element being introduced. Some of the pros and cons of writing straight historical fiction are the same when horror is thrown into the mix.
- The history & timeline already exist – you only need to add the horror story. Also, the past is filled with real-life horrific events and people and these can be used to create more effect. I used the Black Death in 14th century England as the backdrop to my medieval undead novels and included actual medical treatments for common ailments and injuries. These ‘cures’ in themselves were horrific at times, adding to the overall historically accurate atmosphere.
- The further back in history you go, the less records there are – more chance for you to fill in the blanks with your story and get creative.
- Most, if not all, research can be done from your living room (see point below on using the internet)
- You’ll become an “expert” in a relatively short period of time. I was already familiar with the Black Death (I’m a medievalist and also write straight historic fiction novels and articles) but now? Go on, ask me anything).
- Research! If you don’t enjoy research, historical fiction isn’t for you. As I mentioned above, I was already familiar with the time period for my novels, but I DID do a lot of research both before and during writing. The details are important!
- Even though the history & timeline already exist, you will still need to plan carefully (historical fiction readers are a VERY keen and, oftentimes, very particular group; they’ll call you on incorrect dates and events, fabric colours, types of broom straw, and favourite Tudor cats. Horror readers are the same, picking out inaccuracies like a chocolate lover picking out the horrible coffee-flavoured chocolates from a box).
One of the most important parts of writing historical horror fiction; you can never do too much research, but you CAN put too much of it into your story. Remember, this is a novel, not a grade school history paper. Throwing in too much historical detail just for the sake of it will turn your readers off. Having said that, details are a lot of the story when used well and will create your story’s atmosphere. A few words of description of what the king’s goblet looks like, compared to one of his servants, won’t only contribute to the sense of time but also subtly illustrate the difference between two different social classes i.e. rich people, and people owned by rich people. Many of the scenes in my novels take place in very formal settings (ie at the Court of King Edward, the papal palace etc.) and these were very helpful in showing the history many readers are already familiar with. Everyone recognises kings and queens.
Keep in mind that not only clothing fashions change with the times, so does furniture, architecture, decorations, household items, murder weapons – getting these details correct is imperative and will draw your readers into your story that much more. One of my favourite quotes is written by horror master Steven King: “Give me just enough information so that I can lie convincingly.” This is so true! But the key word in that sentence is ‘convincingly’.
People react the same way to the same horror, no matter the time period or place. The possible harm of a child, a family member missing, fear of the unknown, of the consequences of our actions, pain, death – all the same a thousand years ago as yesterday. Perceptions change over the centuries, led by the church or government or scientists, but the same basic fears are still deeply held. And that’s what makes writing historical horror so appealing, the idea that a person 1,000 years ago would react to a monster, no matter what shape that monster takes, in the exact same way as we do today. It’s a compelling idea, and there’s no much horrid history to choose from!
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Copyright K Evans 2022