Reality and the Waking Nightmare: Setting and Character in Horror Fiction
© 1987 - 2001 by Mort Castle
Undoubtedly, you have had the experience of picking up a novel at the
end of the day, telling yourself you'll read a chapter before going to
sleep, and then ...
A surprised glance at the clock. It's five in the morning! Huh? What
happened? You had taken no notice of time passing, not here in the real
world. Instead, your time became the time of the novel, with perhaps a
day depicted in 13 pages, or 11 months flashing by in three tightly constricted
paragraphs. Nor while time passed on Earth were you thinking about such
-here-and-now concerns as the cluster of mosquito bites on your forearm,
that difficult choice between paying the car-repair bill or the pediatrician's
child-repair bill, or your chances of winning the lottery.
As you read, your body occupied space in RealityLand--but you, the thinking,
feeling, imagining, real you, were literally somewhere else. You were
walking the suburban streets or city alleys, the forest paths or sandy
beaches of a fictional world, as you shared the adventures and thoughts
and emotions of that world's people, people you had come to know and to
care about. The late John Gardner, a fine writer and teacher of writing,
called fiction a "waking dream." When you sleep and dream, you experience
the dream as real. And when you enter the waking dream of a well-written
short story or novel, it is just as real.
Of course, you're reading this because you are interested in creating
not waking dreams but waking nightmares. (Daymares is a term commonly
used by some horror fans and a few writers, but I don't care for it: too
cute!) You want to set spines a-shivering and souls -a-shaking--and sometimes
How do you do that?
Perhaps you expect me to answer my rhetorical question by saying something
like, "Use your imagination. Dredge up the dreads in the corners and basement
of the brain. Set free the imagination to go on a scythe-swinging, chain-saw
slashing, Roto-Rooter rooting rampage--and you've got a horror story."
Sorry. Imagination will give you an idea for a horror story, but you're
a long way from having the waking nightmare that will envelop and encompass
It's reality's "What Is," not imagination's "What If?" that can transform
horror premise into horror story. It takes reality, heaps of it, to create
and populate a story realm that gives readers the frights royale. It takes
settings that have the reality of Lincoln, Nebraska; Tucson, Arizona;
or Grenada, Mississippi. It takes breathing, thinking, feeling, story
folks who are as real as your Uncle Albert, who always gets drunk and
sentimental at family reunions; as real as Mr. Schlechter, your high school
English teacher who nearly flunked you for not handing in your term paper
on "Washington Irving's Use of the Comma in Rip Van Winkle"; as real as
your first puppy-love paramour or your last meaningful-relationship partner.
Good fiction, by definition, is credible. It is a lie that can be believed.
Readers should be able to say of a contemporary or mainstream work of
fiction, "Yes, given these circumstances, this could really happen. "
Readers should able to say that of a western, romance, mystery, suspense,
you-name-it work of fiction.
And readers must be able to say of a story of the supernatural, the
paranormal, the occult, the horrific, the weird, the wild, and the off-the-wall,
"Given these circumstances, this could really happen"--if they are to
enter into and be held by a waking nightmare. The key to credibility in
fright-fantasy fiction is setting and character. Your readers, after all,
are already meeting you more than halfway, as they implicitly agree, "I
want to be scared--and so I choose to willingly suspend disbelief in order
to accept your imaginative premise. A manacle-rattling, saber-waving,
or ice-cream cone licking ghost, a werewolf, were-panther, were-bear,
-were-whatever, a 200-year-old transvestite vampire who needs root canal
work on his fangs, okay, I'll go with that. I'll stretch my credulity
that far. . . "
But that's it! With one such leap of imagination/acceptance of the incredible,
readers have given you all you have a right to expect. That means everything
else in your waking nightmare must be true to life so that readers are
never saying, "Uh-uh, I'm being lied to."
What's "everything else"?
Everything else = setting and characters. (Okay, fiction has setting,
characters, and plot! Correct. But if your principal characters respond
to their problem/conflict situations in credible ways, plot happens almost
automatically. Besides, I wasn't asked to do a chapter on plotting!)
How do you make settings real? Bring out the old chestnut: Write about
what you know.
It's hardly a surprise that Robert McCammon's evocative and frightening-as-hell
novel, Mystery Walk, is set in Dixie. A graduate of the University of
Alabama, living in Birmingham, Alabama, McCammon knows the territory.
J.N. Williamson often chooses Indianapolis, Indiana, as the setting for
his fictive frights. Indianapolis born, -Indianapolis-dwelling, sure to
get all worked up over the Indy 500, Williamson knows Indianapolis and
depicts it so you know it, too.
A Maine native, Stephen King has lived in Castle Rock and 'Salem's Lot--even
if those towns have other names on the Auto Club map.
I've lived in Crete, Illinois, one of Chicago's south suburbs, for nearly
twenty years. I slide behind the wheel of my Ford Escort, and within twenty
minutes, I'm at Lincoln Mall, an under-one-roof shopping center that always
smells of caramel corn; or Prairie State College, which in two years can
provide you an associate's degree in English or air-conditioning repair;
or Suburban Heights Medical Center, a modem facility with a large staff
who are rightly termed professional health care workers. I can drive through
Park Forest, a long-established middle-class planned community; or Ford
Heights, as poverty-stricken and dangerous a ghetto as you shouldn't be
able to find in our proverbial land of plenty; or Swiss Valley, where
my poor compact car's ego dies as we pass driveways in which are parked
Cadillacs, Mercedeses, and Jaguars.
You can understand, then, how I came up with a suburb called Park Estates
for the setting of my horror novel, The Strangers. You know why my protagonist's
wife signed up for a psychology class at Lincoln State College. You now
have the inside info on the protagonist's daughter, struck by a car, winding
up in the emergency room of the South Suburban Medical Center. Here's
a brief passage from The Strangers:-
Two Park Estates Police Department officers and the paramedics arrived
without sirens, their whirling lights fragmenting the neighborhood into
coldly iridescent expressionist objects and angles: a bird-bath, jumping
shadows cast by the limb of a tree, an advertising circular blowing across
a lawn, the eyes of a prowling cat...
To write that, I employed zero imagination. Instead, I relied on memory
and knowledge, and found words to let my readers see what I can see every
I hear a protest: "But I live in North Nowhere, Kansas, three churches,
four taverns, and a trailer park. Our big cultural event is the annual
VFW show when the guys dress up as women.... How's a fictionalized North
Nowhere to grab and keep readers' interest?"
Sorry, I maintain that North Nowhere is interesting--if you set out to
discover the interest. Maybe I'm not exactly a wild and crazy guy, but
I note all sorts of "local color" events in Crete that grab me (and, fictionalized
a bit, often wind up in my writing): The eclectic Old Town Restaurant
adds something new to a menu that already offers Mexican burritos, Chinese
egg rolls, Italian ravioli, and Greek dolmaches; Crete Hardware has a
sign, "Thanks for your patronage for the past 30 years," not because the
store is going out of business or anything, but just to say, "Thanks";
the high school's cheerleaders slow traffic at the Main-and-Exchange intersection
(the town's only stoplight), by holding a "Sucker Day" to raise money
for new uniforms.
Granted, reality-based settings are prosaic and commonplace. The very
ordinariness of such settings works for you in two ways.
First, readers are familiar with the ordinary; they live there. Readers
relate to the ordinary without your having to work at establishing that
relationship. And thus readers will find your settings credible, as they
Then, if you have an ominous, thickly atmospheric setting, the phosphorescent-fog-shrouded
swamp, the torture chamber of a crumbling castle, the burial ground of
a Satanic church, you will be hard pressed to spring a surprise on your
readers, who anticipate an awful or nasty occurrence in such a foreboding
Summer. A few minutes past sunrise. Birchwood Lane, a quiet suburban
street. Mailbox on the comer. A parkway tom up to repair a broken sewer
file. A squirrel zips up a tree, fleeing a gray tomcat ...
Ho-hum, hum-drum ... until something sinuous, gleaming with slime, slithers
from the mailbox's "In" slot ...
Or . . .
The squirrel, safe on a limb, chatters defiance at the cat below ...
an then, from the thick leaves behind the squirrel, a furry arm shoots
out and a knobby-knuckled, four-fingered hand encircles the squirrel's
When the ordinary is invaded by the terrifying extraordinary, horror
And thus it is the intrusion of the extraordinary, the appalling unusual
into the lives of ordinary, credible, for-real characters that makes for
compelling shock fiction.
A good horror story character is a fictional someone who is every bit
as alive and as much a unique individual as anyone we really know really
well out here in RealityLand. He must be for readers to care about him.
If readers don't care, they will not give a rap about what the character
does or what happens to him.
Your readers can like or dislike, love or hate a character--but you can
never allow readers to feel only indifference toward him.
To illustrate this idea: Like you, I read the newspaper obituaries. I
note the passing of 82-year-old Lorinda Strudel, for four decades the
third-chair viola with the Peoria Semi-Symphonic, or the demise of Andre
Shutdehans, inventor of the Pocket Fruit Juicer (no batteries needed)--and
then I turn to the horoscope or sports sections.
I don't know these dead people.
They mean nothing to me.
But I can still remember, remember so well, how I felt when I learned
Jack Benny had died. Jack Benny, the fictional comic persona, whose money
vault inspired Scrooge McDuck, who drove that sputtering Maxwell, who
could turn, "Well!" into a bust-your-gut laugh line, who was immortally
39 forever. Jack Benny, the man, the philanthropist, the concert violinist.
Jack Benny, who visited my living room once a week on CBS, channel two,
when the TV world was black and white and owned by very few networks.
And so, Jack Benny died, and there was that scraped-out feeling within
me, that gone-forever, hurting emptiness that is personal loss. Jack Benny.
I knew him better than I knew a number of my relatives: he was a nice
man and a good man and he made me laugh.
The real world of your waking nightmare must be inhabited by characters
your readers know.
And that means you had better know those characters. How well?
You've not only fathered and mothered these characters, you've been their
closest confidant and their psychiatrist. There is nothing they've kept
hidden from you, including things they might have been able to keep hidden
That's how well you know them.
That's how well I know my important characters, anyway. My readers might
never need to know if my protagonist prefers real mayo to Miracle Whip,
if his first car was a cherry-red '67 Ford Mustang, if he likes Willie
Nelson's songs but can't stand looking at the singer, if he had a pet
collie named Lizzie when he was five, etc., but I have to know if I am
to present this character as a three-dimensional, well-rounded human being,
as I must.
In "And of Gideon," my novelette in the John Maclay-edited collection,
Nukes: Four Horror Writers on the Ultimate Horror, my protagonist, Gideon,
is a murderous psychopath. I wanted my readers to fear Gideon, to realize
anew that such human aberrations do exist. I wanted my readers to pity
him as well, this loser who'd been "programmed for pathology."
But more than that, I wanted readers to see Gideon as a credible human
being, one who would elicit the wide range of emotional response that
only real people can evoke.
Here is some of what I knew about Gideon and what I wanted readers to
...my father a drunk, had no love for my mother, another drunk, she none
for him, and neither for me. (From) my early years, I cannot recall a
single hug ... My father would beat me, not with the flat of his hand
or a belt but with his fists. In kindergarten, I could not color within
the lines, could not catch a basketball thrown to me from a distance of
two feet, nor hang by my knees from the monkey bars ... I was always in
trouble: for not coming to school on time, for not even trying on tests,
for not doing this, for not doing that, always in trouble with the teachers,
those despairing head-shakers, "Gideon, don't you want to learn? Don't
you want to amount to anything? Don't you want to grow up and be somebody?"
Because your characters must have their own distinct personalities just
as you are the One and Only You and Nobody Else, you cannot people your
story with stereotypes. Your credible fiction is based on reality, and
if you've ever been friends with a truck driver in RealityLand, you realize
there's so much more to him than can be described by "Truck Driver Type,"
more to the wife-beating drunk than "Wife-Beating Drunk Type"-more to
you than "Writer Type." Stereotypes aren't permitted to have unique personalities
as do real people; they are limited in thought, emotion, and action by
the terribly confining mold which created them.
In an earlier era, we had such stereotypes, offensive generalizations
thinly disguised as human beings, as the Irish cop with the whiskey nose
and the "Faith and begorra" accent, and the shuffling African-American
who, eyes-rolling, yelled, "Feets, do yo' stuff!" when confronted by "them
haints." You can think of many others, I'm sure. I'm afraid horror fiction
these days has its own stereotypes: The Ugly Duckling with the Paranormal
Wild Talent; The Dedicated Psychic Researcher, so icily intellectual that
he continues to take copious notes as Satan's personal imps disembowel
him; The Catholic Priest Suffering Doubt; The Twins, One Good--the Other,
Evil; The Yokel Preacher, who speaks in tongues and would quote more frequently
from the Bible if it didn't have so many multi syllabic words; The Helpless
Female, who, although she is the vice-president of a New York advertising
agency (a nod to women's lib!), nonetheless is totally incapable of dealing
with a supernatural menace. (That's a job for Our Hero, who looks exactly
like Harrison Ford.)
Don't use any of them! (Not that I'm being dogmatic ...) Instead, apply
that previously mentioned writing rule, Write about what you know. You
know people. You have been a "practicing people" ever since you were born.
That makes you a people expert!
You know what you think/how you feel when someone you counted on lets
you down, so you know what your story character thinks/feels when someone
he's counted on lets him down. You have experienced disappointment, joy,
hate, love, and so you can create credible characters who experience disappointment,
joy, hate, love. You've been embarrassed, you've felt pride, you have
felt everything a human being can feel.
Your characters, animated by your knowledge of self, others, and the
world, given your breath of reality as vital force, placed in authenticity-imbued
settings, will come to life on the page.
They will hold out a welcoming hand ... and yank readers into your waking
nightmare ... and keep them there!
Castle, age 54 but remarkably youthful despite serious wrinkling,
is editor or author of a dozen books, including WRITING HORROR: THE HORROR
WRITERS ASSOCIATION HANDBOOK, published by Writer's Digest Books (editor);
MOON ON THE WATER, a short story collection, accepted for the Pulitzer
and Carl Sandburg competitions, from DarkTales Publications; and the horror
novels CURSED BE THE CHILD and THE STRANGERS. With over 400 "shorter things,"
published in anthologies and magazines, Castle is the only living author
to have work in all four of the acclaimed MASQUES collections, edited
by Jerry Williamson, a distinction he hopes to maintain for a lengthy
Forthcoming are NATIONS OF THE LIVING, NATIONS OF THE DEAD, a collection
of "Mort Myths," from Imaginary Worlds, and, from the same publisher,
a CD: BUCKEYE JIM IN EGYPT (a movie musical without pictures), with new
and traditional songs written and performed by Mike Baker, Chuck Niebling,
and Mort. He is at work on expanding his novella, "The Old Man and the
Dead," the story of what happened when Papa Hemingway met George Romero's
flesh eating zombies: into a novel, which Castle promises not to call
TRUE AT FIRST BITE.
Despite a known penchant for immodesty, Castle is not comfortable writing
about himself in the third person and thus will wrap up this ego-puffery.
"Reality and the Waking Nightmare: Setting and Character in Horror Fiction,"
appears in How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, and Science-Fiction,
edited by J.N. Williamson, Writer's Digest Books, © 1987, 1991, 2000,
2001 by Mort Castle. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed
without the author's written permission. Permission is granted only for
posting on the World Wide Web at http://www.horror.org/, though hyperlinks
to the article at this URL are encouraged.