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

Follow @carrieryan on Twitter.

Author photo © Darren Cassese

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