Do you know how to write a fairy tale? Then you know how to write a horror story, too. A horror story is, more or less, a fairy tale turned inside out.
The fairy tale and the horror tale are both very old, and both have similar origins: They’re rooted in warnings, in advice, in the idea that you need to know the consequences. The fairy tale is rooted in a warning heeded, and a reward or a wonder at the end. But a warning not heeded? A warning can bend, can rot, can turn on you. A story can be one thing, or two—good or bad, nightmare and dream. As Brian Evenson’s narrator says in his horror tale “Windeye:” ““It is important to know that a window can be instead a windeye.” It is important to know that wonder can turn to horror, and it’s not as hard as you might think to twist it. It might scare you how easy it actually is.
The elements are very much the same.
Let’s start as fairy tales do, with the “once upon a time;” in contemporary horror stories it might be long ago, or it might be a now that’s not quite like our own. There always something set apart, something fable-like about the place and time of a horror story. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” for example, could be a fairy tale at the beginning; it starts out in a village that could be contemporary, but could also be just about anywhere, anytime, Anytown. The stories in Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas have a set apart, once-upon-a-time feel. The setting in horror is often more contemporary, but there’s something off about the now.
In fairy tales, the setting is often isolated, enchanted—a castle, a cottage in the woods. In horror tales, there might be a spooky castle, or a haunted house, or a cabin in the woods. The important thing, in this kind of horror story, is that the characters are isolated in some way, cut off or far off from civilization and salvation. In fairy tales and in horror, that isolation makes magic and menace possible. The kind of magic, though, makes all the difference. In fairy tales, the home is often a place to leave, but in horror? It’s often the place you can’t leave. In Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals,” for example, the main character becomes increasingly isolated in her house, feels abandoned by her husband, and a kind of menace becomes possible in her emotional and physical isolation, which manifests in real, terrifying magic at the end of the story. In Rion Amilcar Scott’s “A Loudness of Screechers,” the characters are cornered and stuck in the home as the monstrous birds attack.
In a fairy tale, the writer is required to draw lines clearly between good and evil. In a horror story, the lines are often just a clearly drawn, but determining who is good and who is not is a more difficult proposition. The wolves and Little Reds in Matt Bell’s Wolf Parts stories switch roles repeatedly; hunter and hunted, and who can always tell? Fairy tales are rarely surprising, but horror tales must be. That doesn’t necessarily mean a twist ending, or an outright shock. It can often just mean that you’re turning the fairy tale upside down, skinning it and stuffing it and making something new. Bell says that “Almost every fairy tale has good bones like this, and they can be rearranged to make all kinds of fantastical skeletons on which you might hang a story.” Carmen Maria Machado similarly plays with the idea of traditional fairy tales, roles reversals—and the question of who is truly the bad guy resonates strongly through her chilling “The Husband Stitch.”
Family figures strongly in both fairy tales and in horror tales. But family is usually a comfort—or least a known cast—instead of the element of fear it is in the horror tales. In horror, the family often conflates with the other, the double, the doppelganger; the changeling replaces the warmth of the loved one with a cold, cool menace. Using family against itself in horror is so effective precisely because it’s something so familiar, and fear works best when it’s closest. As Shirley Jackson writes, “I have always loved to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work.” Loss of family is a particularly potent kind of fear. From the first line, we know something dreadful is going to happen between the brother and sister in Brian Evenson’s “Windeye,”—and when we learn what it is, the loss is both devastating and scary. In “It’s a Good Life,” by Jerome Bixby, the family is held hostage by their own son, the blessing turned into the curse. In this story, the family probably wishes for a changeling.
A definition that applies equally to horror and fairy tales, I think: a tale where extraordinary things happen to ordinary people. Helen Oyeyemi, Kelly Link, and Lincoln Michel, fabulist writers, all write ordinary people in the midst of extraordinary events—and at first, their stories often read like a fairy tale, before the events take a sinister, dreadful turn. Oyeyemi says “I tend to prioritize emotional realism above the known laws of time and space, and when you do that, it’s inevitable that strange things happen.”
It is possible, of course, for your horror tale to have a happy ending; some do. But the happy ending is rare in horror, and ambiguous, and no one comes out unscathed. Far more likely that someone survives rather than thrives. Like fairy tales, your main character is probably changed, but in ways that twist and warp. These, after all, are often the only people who did heed the warning, who did follow the directions, who noted the signs in the sky, the unholy portents. These survivors may not have been eaten by the wolf, but they’ll dream him every night, as long as they live.
And sometimes, nobody lives. Sometimes, it’s only the scorched earth left. As Victor LaValle says, “there are some times when no one survives, when people don’t make it out and that can be bracing and powerful too. Like a rough massage. You shouldn’t do it to yourself all the time, but once in a while it feels perfect.”
Amber Sparks is the author of several short story collections, including The Unfinished World and Other Stories, and the upcoming I Do Not Forgive You (Liveright, 2020). Her essays and fiction can be found widely in print and online, in places like The Paris Review, NYMag, Granta, and Tin House.