Guest Post: What Scares Carrie Ryan

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

By Carrie Ryan, author of THE DARK AND HOLLOW PLACES

Growing up I was a horror novel junkie. I’d be the first one in line the day Christopher Pike’s latest came out and I’d read him late into the night (I credit him for turning me into a speed reader). I loved his ability to take things that seemed mundane and make them horrifying (anyone remember Chain Letter?) while also making it seem like this was the kind of story that could have happened just one town over.

Today, when I think about what makes a story scary for me I think it’s that interweaving of believability with the claustrophobic feeling that horror is inevitable and there is no escape. I love the stories that feel like they could happen to you or might have happened to a friend. That’s why I think all urban legends start with “This totally happened to a friend’s brother’s ex-girlfriend…” because that makes them feel real.

It’s not scary when something happens to a total stranger. But when that stranger could have easily been you? That’s terrifying.

And so once you have that familiarity you start piling on the tension until there is no escape and whatever horror awaits is inevitable. I often think that’s the scariest part of any story—not the eventual horrible thing that might happen, but waiting for that event and trying to escape as every option closes.

This is something that Joe Hill does brilliantly in Heart-Shaped Box. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, the protagonist, Judas Coyne, buys a ghost off an online auction site (actually, he buys the suit the dead man was buried in, but supposedly the spirit is attached to the suit so you get the suit, you get the ghost).

{Spoiler Alert} Bad things start to happen, but escape still seems possible until one by one all the options are closed out. His girlfriend burns the suit so he can’t send it (and the ghost) away. Even when he leaves the house the ghost follows. His dogs, who have the ability to protect Coyne, are killed. Every single option is closed out—there is no escape. And it’s that dawning lack of hope that brings down the real horror. {End Spoilers}

Because really, scary books are ultimately about the hope of survival and escape: That somehow the protagonist can endure the pressing horror and find a way to escape and persevere. And yet there always has to be that moment in the book where all hope is gone; where things can’t get any worse and yet they do.

Shirley Jackson is another author who is brilliant at this. I think someone else is going to expound more on her so I won’t go into too much detail but in almost every Jackson story just when you think that things can’t get worse… they do.

Really, for me, scary is the obliteration of options. Because when the protagonist sees no way out and the reader can’t see a way out either, you’re at the complete mercy of the author. Which is right where we want you. 🙂


Carrie Ryan is the New York Times bestselling author of two critically acclaimed novels set decades after the zombie apocalypse: The Forest of Hands and Teeth (Delacorte Press, 2009) and The Dead-Tossed Waves (Delacorte Press, 2010). The third in the trilogy, The Dark and Hollow Places, was released in Spring 2011. Born and raised in Greenville, South Carolina, Carrie is a graduate of Williams College and Duke University School of Law. A former litigator, she now writes full time. She lives with her writer/lawyer husband, two fat cats and one large puppy in Charlotte, North Carolina. They are not at all prepared for the zombie apocalypse.

Visit Carrie online at carrieryan.com.

Follow @carrieryan on Twitter.

Author photo © Darren Cassese


Comment on this guest blog and you’ll gain an extra entry for the big Halloween giveaway on October 31, containing prize packs of signed books plus books and ARCs donated by my publisher Penguin Teen!  

You can keep track of all the “What Scares You?” guest blogs with this tag.

27 thoughts on “Guest Post: What Scares Carrie Ryan

  1. Alessandra October 17, 2011 / 1:35 pm

    I was a huge fan of Christopher Pike growing up. I’d buy his books when the day they came out too. (Remember Me is my favorite of his.)

    And Heart-Shaped Box! That was a great book. I thought that one scene where Judas is walking down the hallway and the ghost is sitting in the rocking chair at the end was brrrrr, scary.

  2. inchrist16@gmail.com October 17, 2011 / 4:51 pm

    2 posts in one day! What a treat! All this talk of scary literature makes me feel like it’s Halloween already… Oh, and Carrie Ryan’s books look fantastic! I am definitely going to check them out! =)

  3. Sara October 17, 2011 / 5:00 pm

    Another fantastic new author for me to check out! Carrie Ryan’s books look mind-boggling!! I am loving this blog series–so intriguing…….

  4. JP October 17, 2011 / 6:46 pm

    *spine tingles* That is so true! When someone tells me something scary that happened to them/happened to your “Average Joe,” I get sort of freaked out.

  5. Grace Radford October 17, 2011 / 7:24 pm

    I really like Carrie’s books, and what she says is totally true. When you talk about “this one guy” it’s not as scary as “my sister told me that she once”…

  6. Anonymous October 17, 2011 / 7:29 pm

    Heart-Shaped Box is one of the standard in-store recs where I work for any horror fans- we only really have two horror readers on staff but if they’re not there when we get the question, we all know to rec Joe Hill. One described it as one of the most consistently suspenseful things he’s ever read.

  7. Ashelynn Hetland October 17, 2011 / 11:07 pm

    That is brilliant advice. I’m writing a scary story now, so I’ll definitely keep this in mind! Thank you, Carrie and Nova!

  8. Ani Louise October 17, 2011 / 11:41 pm

    This is so true: “And it’s that dawning lack of hope that brings down the real horror.” When there’s no way out, that’s when you know something scary is about to happen! Thanks for sharing Carrie!

  9. Anne M Leone October 18, 2011 / 5:47 am

    I’m so impressed, what a great insight into a scary book. Rushing back to my wip! Thanks!

  10. Larissa October 18, 2011 / 7:07 pm

    Excellent post, Carrie! You are so right. I think that’s why the end of Pike’s Die Softly stays with me (did you read that one? I can still feel my shock and horror at how it ended).

  11. Gabi October 18, 2011 / 11:34 pm

    I’ve heard of this! I haven’t read it yet, but I definitely need to.

  12. moirae the fates October 20, 2011 / 2:41 pm

    I’ve never read one of Christopher Pikes books. I feel like I’m missing out.

  13. Dani Nguyen October 21, 2011 / 9:35 am

    I haven’t read Heart-Shaped Box, but I’ll have to add it to my to-read list. It sounds like my kind of book. I’ve read all of Carrie’s books and they seriously creeped me out. I agree that being able to relate to the story makes it much scarier!

  14. Kari October 21, 2011 / 11:15 pm

    Oh I picked this book up on a whim at Half Price not too long ago! This makes me want to read it sooner rather than later… =D

  15. HiLarri October 22, 2011 / 9:38 am

    I so agree with the “it’s scary when it could’ve easily been you” philosophy. That’s the kind of stuff that makes me keep my light on at night and looking behind my back like some paranoid freak.

  16. CourtCat (@CourtCat) October 26, 2011 / 6:26 pm

    I agree, a lack of options and/or hope is terrifying.

  17. thuy October 26, 2011 / 7:21 pm

    i have been contemplating reading heart shaped box but it looks so scary! now i know it is. but i still want to read it. 🙂

  18. Gina October 29, 2011 / 10:54 am

    Also not prepared for the zombie apocalypse… should i get some canned good? 😉

  19. Ishita aka Fishy October 31, 2011 / 8:52 pm

    I love books by Christopher Pike! and i totally agree with what makes a horror novel! 😀

  20. Hannah Lorraine (@inthebestworlds) October 31, 2011 / 9:00 pm

    I love Forest of Hands and Teeth – and it definitely accomplishes that terror of the “claustrophic” fear and the impossibility of escape.

  21. BubbleGumBookReviews (@BGBookReviews) November 1, 2011 / 9:39 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly with Carrie. Everything is peaches and cream READING a book, but when you’re babysitting and someone calls to ask, “Have you checked the children?” it’s a whole other story.

  22. Linda Camacho November 2, 2011 / 12:05 pm

    I’m a big fan and all I can say is, please write faster, Carrie! lol I’ll be passing that bit onto Krista when I see her next.

    –Linda C.

  23. Paola Martinez Parente November 2, 2011 / 1:06 pm

    Gosh! I rememeber when I read that book. CREEPY!! I couldn’t sleep for months!

  24. Steph McCabe November 3, 2011 / 8:20 pm

    I’m with you on the “realness” of scary stories. One of the creepiest I’ve read was one from Ray Bradbury about a man who worked in the circus and had tattoos that told the future!

  25. Mary DeBorde November 5, 2011 / 9:18 pm

    Mary D {M.A.D.}

    Carrie Ryan is one of my all time favorite authors – when I read The Forest of Hands & Teeth it absolutely blowed me away, and I’ve been a zombie fan ever since lol

  26. Stacy November 6, 2011 / 10:05 am

    I never heard of this book, so now I have something new to read, thanks!

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