Void: Using Absence as Fear in At the Hands of Madness
By Kevin Holton
Writing a good novel about a giant monster is tough work. You have to balance destruction against development, providing room for the characters to grow even as their world falls to pieces around them. Even the monsters need some development (I’ll save that for another article), but if you don’t walk that line well, the story falls flat. No one wants to read three hundred pages of “this got smashed, then these people died, then THAT THING got smashed!”
When I was writing At the Hands of Madness, I learned another important lesson: it’s also hard to keep readers afraid of a monster that isn’t there. So, I played that to my advantage. Medraka, the four-armed, psychic, Lovecraftian kaiju monstrosity serving as the Big Bad of my book, can teleport, even into alternate dimensions.
If your antagonist is going to spend a good chunk of time off page, don’t worry about making people afraid despite it not being there. Focus on making them afraid because it isn’t there. Sure, it’s not smashing your face in now, but what’ll happen ten minutes from now? A day? A year?
The key—at least, from my experience—is peppering the narration with details about what it’s capable of. If your monster can burrow under the ground, like in Tremors, then it’s actually a lot worse to not see the damn thing, instead feeling its burrowing rumble and shake the earth. A Xenomorph is a terrifying creature, and you don’t want to mess with it, but would you prefer to have eyes on it, or simply hear its clangs echoing through the ventilation system? Predator knew this absence-is-worse feeling well, given the eponymous Predator’s cloaking technology.
With Medraka, I couldn’t use sound and touch to my advantage. When it isn’t on the page, it simply isn’t there, gone entirely from this plane of existence, with no ability to alert the characters by knocking something over, or digging, or screeching, or what have you.
So, here are a few tips for building that sense of dread—without resorting to flashbacks.
Play with extra sensory work
Can your character mysteriously ‘sense’ when the Big Bad is coming? Does another, maybe a cop, have a foolproof gut instinct, or intuition, that might clue people in to when it’ll show up? Consider, for instance, any given thriller or Law & Order episode where the detective looks at something totally innocuous, like a half-eaten sandwich, and says, “Captain, this is the work of a serial killer.” Why? How? Who knows—what we do know is that there’s a lot more at stake now, and you can’t defend yourself from what you can’t see.
Give us something else to lose
Use those down moments to reflect on what’s important. What’s the protagonist(s) first move after escaping death? Hugging that attractive ally? Checking in with the commander? Tending to the wounded? The more a character has to lose, and the more others would be hurt if that character dies, the more we can dread that monster’s reappearance. The heroin who limps to the medical bay with a broken leg so she can administer first aid to others is going to make us care a lot more than the guy who just reloads his weapon.
Hold a funeral
As long as it makes sense for the pacing, allow your characters to mourn the dead. Aside from being a normal part of the human experience, it’ll also give the readers opportunity to see just what each loss means, and why they so thoroughly fear the next. The absence a character leaves behind will also remind us of the absence the antagonist has left, too.
Increase its power
Okay, this is a little cheating, since it’s still technically doing something, but if you want to increase the tension, have somebody report about its wild antics in another location. At one point in At the Hands of Madness, Chicago disappears. The whole city, teleported right out of existence. I won’t say more, of course, but needless to say, the main crew freaks out a bit when they hear this. Knowing that they barely survived, then hearing it can do even worse things, will crank that fear dial up to eleven.
There are, of course, other ways to make people afraid, but when there’s literally nothing to be afraid of—when all you have to work with is fear itself—creature features can risk facing a bit of derailment. So, steady on! That beast may have slipped out of sight, but don’t let it ever slip out of the readers’ minds. The more you make people fear what isn’t there, the more terrible it will be when that monster finally returns.
Kevin Holton is the author of At the Hands of Madness, as well as the forthcoming titles The Nightmare King and These Walls Don’t Talk, They Scream. He also co-wrote the short film Human Report 85616, and his short work has appeared in dozens of anthologies.