OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt a Facets of Fiction session recently we got onto the subject of writing fear. Not the schlock-horror slasher chain-store massacre stuff, but that subtler, and not in the least comic slow-burn tension that you get in movies when the camera point of view tells you you’re watching through the eyes of some hidden predator.

There’s a particular favourite of mine, in literature, in the H G Wells novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and having cited this to the group I decided to go and read it again, in the deep darkness of later on! It’s the section of the story where Prendick, already unsettled by the appearance of M’Ling and other residents of the island has been driven out of the compound by the crying of the puma under the eponymous Doctor’s vivisectionist knife.

His unease increases as he encounters one of the beast people that Moreau has created, and then witnesses three more of them ecstatically reciting ‘the law’. A decapitated rabbit on the path adds to his sense of danger, but it is when he begins to realise that the light is fading, and that he has wandered far from the compound that Wells really turns up the tension. In the fading light, Prendick’s journey back, alone and unarmed, his head full of the images of the deformed creatures and the mutilated rabbit carcase, is tracked by one of the beasts. Prendick can see the creature through the thick undergrowth, but as the shadows deepen the tracking turns into a pursuit.

I had the pleasure of visiting the abandoned island of Mingulay a few years ago, not alone I might add, and neither was it entirely abandoned, for two ‘hunters’ were living on it, and spending their time shooting the local rabbit population, at the behest of Scottish heritage or some such body. The rabbits, in case you’re wondering, were, and probably still are, literally destroying the island. The open ground near to the ruins of the village was strewn with corpses, each neatly slit open, presumably to encourage the attention of scavenging birds, and my mind flashed back to Moreau’s island.

What’s interesting to me about this imagery and the way writers, and film makers use it, is how the power of the threat it implies is often in inverse proportion to the extent of the danger that is made explicit. What is hinted at, but not revealed is usually far more potent than what is shown. I call this the Trollenberg effect, in memory of a film I watched as a child. The Trollenberg Terror lived up in the mountains, shrouded in movie mist, and was terrifying, but when the jelly-blob of second-rate special effects was revealed you reached for the crying-with-laughter box of tissues. As with images, so with words.

M R James, in his Whistle and I’ll Come to You Lad pulls a similar trick, dropping the hints that make our wildest imaginings run free. For the key to this is not what’s happening on the page, so much as what is lurking in our subconscious. Our fears are what scare us, and the good storytellers, in film or language, hitch a ride on those fears, knowing that they will carry them far further than will any horror that they imagine will scare us, or as the old blind monk said. once upon a time, to a character called ‘grasshopper’: it is your fears that pull you down!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA