Six Facets of Terror: The Senses in Horror

Six Facets of Terror: The Senses in Horror

Horror is an emotion, not a genre. That's well known. And all of our emotions are affected by and fed by our senses. It's easy to rely too much on sight and sound when writing and if you're the sort of writer who views their work cinematically it's no surprise that other senses get cast by the wayside. But a book isn't a movie. With words you can get inside someone's head in a very different way from with images and sound. And once inside, you can utilise their full range of senses to achieve the effect you want.

In my new novel The Silence one of my main characters, a teenaged girl Ally, is profoundly deaf following an accident when she was young. By taking away one of her senses I gave myself a huge challenge and it made me think a lot about some of the aspects of life we so take for granted. Imagine not being able to hear music. Or see a sunrise, feel the wind on your skin, smell the springtime perfume of bluebells, taste a great beer or wine. There's horror right there. Add a plague of ravenous beasts that hunt purely by sound, and terror awaits.

Sight is probably our main sense and certainly in fiction it's the default sense used. If a scene is described it's because it's seen by the characters and if they're perceiving it in any other way, that's mentioned. In The Silence, the vesps - the name given to the beasties eating everything in their path - are, to begin with, only detected by being seen. They make very little sound when they fly. My characters need to keep watch, not only to avoid the vesps when they're around, but also to seek out places that might be safe. But then the vesps start to leave a smell: "a sickly and overtly biological stench that nevertheless bit in like industrial chemicals". The countryside starts to stink of them and the family I follow in the novel can often detect the proximity of danger by sniffing for it. It's around and beneath the usual smells of the countryside - turned earth, flowers and heathers, cattle and the sweeping breeze of open spaces. The vesps' stench is another unique part of them and I hope its presence makes some scenes more laden with tension. If you can't see the danger, but can smell it, how close can it be?

Taste might be the most ignored of senses in horror fiction but it's also one of the keenest when it comes to inspiring memory. In The Silence, as well as becoming familiar with the smell of the vesps, my characters can sometimes actually taste their acrid presence on the air, especially those that remain around dead bodies. It's here that they lay their eggs and in one horrific scene Huw, Ally's father, tastes the rancid tang of decay on the air before he encounters a pile of huddled bodies that soon becomes a vesps' birthing ground.

Imagine total darkness. You're keeping as silent as possible so as not to draw attention to yourself. Then you feel the leathery touch of wings flitting across your forearm, hands, cheek. Your imagination runs wild. You don't want to reach out and touch whatever's there with you... but perhaps to touch the beast will make it known. So taken for granted, the information we can derive through touch is immense. It can also be horrific. Not only does Ally reach for a family member's hand when she's scared, she also feels the vesps's breath on her skin in the darkness. Such comfort, such horror.  

And finally, who has never had the sense that they're being watched? Often called the sixth sense, it's a far more nebulous sensation than hearing, seeing or smelling. The Reverend is a haunting presence in The Silence and with his self-mutilation it's his stare that holds such weight. Out in the wilds, later in the book, searching for food and supplies, Huw and Ally feel him watching them with all the weight of his madness. It's a chilling scene using this most mysterious of senses to emphasise the change that has come over the world.

Our lives are ruled by input; information gathered and translated by the brain from all our various senses. To ignore any of this in fiction, to not utilise it all, is to lessen the potential for developing character and story, and also the impact upon the reader. In The Silence I'm keen for the reader to see, hear, smell, taste, touch and sense just how terrifying this changing world can be.

The Silence by Tim Lebbon is out now from Titan Books for £7.99.