#lessonslearned from @arden_katherine: #readers don’t need to see the #horror to feel it. #amwriting #writetip

Ah, ’tis that most wonderful time of the year…when Linus camps out in the pumpkin patch, when Bo shares classic monster movies with the kiddos, when I stroll with a cup of coffee, kicking up the fallen leaves as I go.

It’s that time when Blondie creates ghost stories for every old house we pass on the way home from school, when Bash draws a collection of Frankenstein monster pumpkins for the wall, and Biff curls up beneath his Star Trek comforter with books on all things weird but true.

It’s that time when I’ll return to the stuff of childhood nightmares–in a good way, mind. Creepy story collections like Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Goosebumps, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, or Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.

Today I’d like to add to that list with a story fit for any Midnight Society’s campfire, one a parent can spookily read with his/her child…or perhaps a brave older kid would enjoy reading with a flashlight under the covers.

That story is Katherine Arden’s Small Spaces.

After suffering a tragic loss, eleven-year-old Ollie only finds solace in books. So when she happens upon a crazed woman at the river threatening to throw a book into the water, Ollie doesn’t think–she just acts, stealing the book and running away. As she begins to read the slender volume, Ollie discovers a chilling story about a girl named Beth, the two brothers who both loved her, and a peculiar deal made with “the smiling man,” a sinister specter who grants your most tightly held wish, but only for the ultimate price.

Ollie is captivated by the tale until her school trip the next day to Smoke Hollow, a local farm with a haunting history all its own. …On the way home, the school bus breaks down, sending their teacher back to the farm for help. But the strange bus driver has some advice for the kids left behind in his care: “Best get moving. At nightfall they’ll come for the rest of you.” … Ollie’s previously broken digital wristwatch, a keepsake reminder of better times, begins a startling countdown and delivers a terrifying message: RUN.

From Cover Blurb

I don’t want to give away the whole story (unlike the back cover, gah!). Rather, today I wanted to share a wee epiphany I had while reading this book.

Let’s start when Ollie’s class first arrives at the farm. It’s a large farm, and isolated–no town’s anywhere nearby. This already creates a sense of being cut off from all that’s familiar to Ollie and her classmates.

A group of three scarecrows stood on the edge of the parking lot, smiling stitched-on smiles. Their garden-rake hands were raised to wave. The tips of the rakes gleamed in the sun.
Ollie kept turning. More scarecrows. Scarecrows everywhere. Someone had set up scarecrows between buildings, in the vegetable garden, on stakes in the cornfield. Their hands were trowels or garden rakes. Their smiles had been sewn or painted on.

Chapter 8

Readers feel Ollie tense up at the sight of all these scarecrows. Can we blame her? It’s one thing to have a few scarecrows up for decoration, but “scarecrows everywhere” is unsettling. Then you add the fact that none of them have proper hands, but rather trowels or rakes–no gloves, no straw just sticking out. Nope. Just sharp, pointed things.

The moment reminded me a lot of John Carpenter’s Halloween, actually. I know slashers aren’t for everyone, but I promise you this clip is blood-free. (My apologies for the opening 5 seconds of cussing Freddy Krueger. I just really wanted to use this clip!)

This scene is one of a few depicting Michael Meyers stalking Laurie. He does nothing but stand and stare at her for a few seconds before walking out of sight.

What is he doing out of sight?

We can’t answer that. Laurie can’t, either. You can see the concern and fear fill her face as her friend approaches the hedge. She knows something is off about this faceless Shape, but she can’t yet define it. She didn’t need to see any blood on the Shape of Michael, or a weapon in his hand. There’s no blood-curdling screams from the house, frantic gunshots, etc. The stillness of Michael’s Shape is enough to unsettle Laurie and put her on her guard.

The Unsettling Of The Protagonist during the first act of a story builds an incredible amount of tension. This tension grips the audience and holds them in place because they need to see what could possibly happen. Now comes the real trick for this treat: paying off that expectation.

Well we know Carpenter’s Halloween does this, or it wouldn’t be considered the masterpiece it is today. The stalking escalates to the murder of Laurie’s friends which then escalates to the cat-and-mouse fight for survival between Laurie and Michael in the third act. This escalation fits well with the genre and needs of the audience, to be sure. Sooooo how do we swing a similar escalation into payoff for kids?

Hide the horror’s action off-page.

As the blurb says, Ollie and two of her classmates run from the broken school bus into the dark forest. There they find

WE SEE YOU was written on a tree overhead in ragged, dripping white letters.
Below them another scarecrow leaned against the tree. There was paint on his coveralls; he was grinning ear to ear. He had no hands at all, just two flopping paintbrushes where hands should be.

Chapter 13

Did Ollie and two of her classmates see the scarecrow paint the letters? No. Yet the evidence before them says that it did. Do they see their classmates on the bus? No. And yet:

A scream tore through the twilight. Then a whole chorus of screaming.

Ollie and Coco hurried up the sloping path. The first of the scarecrows stood right on the edge of the fenced-in dead garden, head a little flopped to one side. Brian was standing in front of it, his hand over his mouth.
“What is it?” said Coco.
“That scarecrow,” Ollie said, panting a little. “Is–does it look familiar?”
“Yes,” Brian whispered. “Because it’s wearing Phil’s clothes. Because that’s Phil’s hat and Phil’s hair and kind of Phil’s face–if it were sewn on. That’s Phil.”

Chapter 13, 18

We do not see the school kids transformed into scarecrows. We only know the Before, and the After. It is up to the reader’s imagination to fill in the space between. And a reader’s imagination can be a very, very powerful thing.

When we describe precisely what happened, we, well, we limit the reader’s power. We define with clear guidelines just what took place and how. We walk readers around all the edges and features, showing off precisely what makes that Scary Something strong as well as weak. Of course, this method can be very useful–a reveal of method beneath the madness, if you will.

But we don’t always need to tell readers how the Scary Something works. If we do, we risk severing the Scary from the Something.

The very reason readers come to stories like this in the first place.

Do you have any favorite ghost stories to share? Let me know in the comments below. In the meantime, I’m going to wait for my copy of Dead Voices, the sequel to Small Spaces. Isn’t that cover creepily gorgeous? It’ll be perfect for a Novembery read, when Wisconsin’s lost in the transition from autumn to winter.


I’m excited to share all sorts of creative goings-on with Biff, Bash, and Blondie! I’m hoping to talk a bit about NaNoWriMo, too. Plus there’s a peculiar bit of Wisconsin many presume to be haunted, buuuuut we shall see.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

22 thoughts on “#lessonslearned from @arden_katherine: #readers don’t need to see the #horror to feel it. #amwriting #writetip

  1. I’m such a wuss about horror that even children’s horror books scare me, oh no! Really, that’s about my speed. πŸ™‚ I think you’re absolutely right about how hints can be scarier than detailed descriptions and explanations. Whatever the monster is, I often feel disappointed at the end of the book when the author decides to finally describe it in detail. It’s never as horrible as I had imagined it, because not knowing is part of what makes it terrifying!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, exactly so! I think that’s part of Stephen King’s curse with books like IT or NEEDFUL THINGS. aaaaah, a scary clown…is really a spider alien? aaaaah this creepy shop owner always knows precisely what people want… is a demon with a bumper sticker on his chariot saying “buyer beware”?
      There’s always just a letdown, big or small, with the thought “oh. that’s what it is.” When you take away the mystery, you tend to take the horror with it, sigh….

      Liked by 1 person

      • I wonder if the problem is how much the author (or the film maker) hypes the fear factor at the beginning, so that your imagination goes on overdrive imagining how horrific it is. I’m awful at remembering examples, but there must be some good ones out there where the author didn’t give away all the hints early on — that is, saved the best for last — and the end result when you finally see it really IS scarier than what you thought it would be.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Off the top of my head, I’d say the film Hereditary fit that bill pretty well. Or even the Lego Batman movie! Both films had promotional material that teased one direction while the films themselves actually went in another.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I so agree. I’ve never found full on shock and awe horror movies that interesting. The good ones as you say build the tension. Suggested terror is way more scary. One of the scariest books and one of the best was by Muriel Gray. Her Trickster novel was just brilliant at doing what you talk about. The likes of the original Halloween or the old Hammer Horror movies was mainly played out in the viewers minds. The actual horror scenes would condensed into a few

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ooo, a novel of Trickster magnitude sounds perfect for this time of year! And I love those old Hammer movies. Bo’s got quite a few of them. You’re spot on that the truly “horrific” bits of those horror movies are few and far between. Well consider Psycho–how many truly in-your-face moments are there in that movie? Very few. It’s aaaaall about the tension, of not knowing what Norman will do next.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. ‘Tis still the strangest thing to me. Halloween. 300 hundred hyears ago when I was ‘small’ in this ruptured Isle such a celebration was unheard of. An American influence methinks.These days ‘small’ children knock upon the door seeking treasure in the form of sugarised things to chew upon. Those that smile we feed; to those that don’t get told of the story of the evil letterbox within the front door to the house…told of the ghosts, monsters and freaks prone to BBQ the ‘small’ ones. Their numbers, in terms of our address, are less and less each year. They should have heeded Shirley’s advice that a smile is all it takes. Such fun. Enjoy your Halloween Ms Lee. As ever, yours, The Old Fool

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yes! When the older grumps show up with shopping bags and not even an attempt at a costume, I just grimace at them until they move on, the little bastards. I don’t mind children of any age getting candy from me, but they better put in some effort!
      Speaking of, I should finish Biff’s costume tomorrow. And we may need to get out the snowpants in order to trick or treat here–SNOW is coming!
      You stay warm, my friend, and pass my loving regards to your wonderful family. Yours, The Fatigued Mother Who Didn’t Need Her Children To Be On School Break Already xxxxxx

      Liked by 1 person

  4. And now I’m terrified of Wurzel Gummidge! Love the article, though – the clip on building the terror without showing lots of blood is brilliant and puts me in mind of the building tension within Alien, well before we see the creature and while we are waiting for it to pounce. It’s very well done, too:))

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aw, shucks. But it’s so true! I was going on with Joy Pixley on how challenging it is to heighten all this tension and NOT let the audience down. It feels like one of the best ways to avoid that letdown is to keep some things wrapped in mystery from start to finish, including elements of the villain.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely! I think that’s the great strength of Alien – we don’t get a clear view of the monster till very near the end and we are all hardwired to fear the unknown…

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: A #HappyHalloween in #Wisconsin! Let’s move from #October’s Hollow #Haunts to #November’s #NaNoWriMo #writers and #kidlit #legendsinthemaking. | Jean Lee's World

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