Kidnapped! Void: Using Absence as Fear in At the Hands of Madness

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.

He can be found at, or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Patreon @TheHoltoning.




When Terror Takes Hold – Laurel Anne Hill

Nothing squeezes my gut worse than facing big-time adversity beyond any hope of my control. I’ve dangled forty feet in the air from the broken cross-bar of a rotten clothes-line pole, and sixty feet up while clinging to a busted ladder on the side of a building. On one SCUBA diving adventure, my air supply malfunctioned thirty feet beneath the ocean’s surface. And white-water rapids once sucked me under and pinned me against a boulder. Yet in all of these situations, I focused on survival and took action. Terror never had a chance to catch me and take hold.

Photo by Amanda Norman

Thus, one of my scariest experiences occurred before my “take action” survival response had yet developed. I was young, perhaps only eight or nine years old.

My childhood home was a third floor rental flat in San Francisco, one of those units with a long hallway leading to the bedrooms and bath. Railroad flats, they’re sometimes called. An enclosed service porch, containing our wringer washer, laundry tubs, a work table and a closet full of home-canned fruits and vegetables stood adjacent to the kitchen. Mother kept the back door to the flat locked, but the business end of a skeleton key often resided in the keyhole. A fire safety measure. The door led to a wooden staircase, the staircase to an alleyway between buildings. One end of the alleyway opened into the back yard. At the opposite end was a door to Fourteenth Street.

The street-side alleyway door was never locked.

Three generations lived in our two-bedroom flat. You do the math. I had no room of my own for a haven. Sometimes I liked to stand on the porch at night and feel the darkness enfold me.

Even in those days, I “wrote” stories in my head or jotted them on paper. The ambiance of a lightless or shadowy room stirred my imagination. Still, I had not yet acquired the skills to translate emotions into sentences. The best stories lived inside of my mind.

One night, my mother and older sister were reading in the living room. My father was away on a business trip. Grandma and Grandpa had retired to bed. My baby brother slept. I stood on the porch by the washing machine, doors to both kitchen and outside stairs shut. Moonlight glowed through a side window.

An inner voice told me I shouldn’t be there.

But the voice was only my conscience, wasn’t it? I should return to the living room, lie on the rug in front of our little gas heater or curl up on the overstuffed rose sofa with a book. I should share time with my family.

I heard a noise from outside. A creaking of wood.

The first feeling to stir within me was not one of alarm, but the warmth of embarrassment. I was here, successfully becoming lost in imagination, and Mother wanted my company. We had no television and took pleasure in the presence of each other at day’s end.

Another creak followed, and another. Those were footsteps. Slow, heavy footsteps.

No one ever climbed our back stairs at night.

The footsteps now reached from beyond my imagination. I’d learned to separate reality from fantasy. Whoever approached my back door was real.

If the intruder heard me, he or she might break down the door and grab me. Maybe I should remain quiet. But Mother needed to know so she could call the police. No matter. Neither my arms nor legs would have obeyed any command to move. I could barely even breathe.

The doorknob rattled.

What if Mother had forgotten to lock the door? Or if the person at the door–surely a man–knew how to probe the keyhole with wire and make the skeleton key turn? I ought to get Mother. Why couldn’t I move?

The doorknob turned.

All warmth left me. My heart thudded faster and faster. Yet the terror provided a certain perverse pleasure, something to tuck away inside of my mind for future recollection.

The door didn’t open. A wooden board creaked. Footsteps receded. Whoever had stood on the other side of the barrier had retreated down the stairs.

I remained immobile for at least five minutes. The intruder did not return. My world was safe again.

How wonderful to open the door leading into the kitchen, to see Grandma’s stove with its big, black pipe in the shadowy room. I headed to the living room and told my mother and older sister what had happened. They laughed.

Neither one believed me, that is, until I repeated my story to them many years later.

As for the terror I experienced, I keep the memory tucked inside my brain. I draw upon the details when giving characters in my stories a frightful time. The memory also spurs me to be sure I’ve locked my doors and activated the alarm system before bedtime.

With or without a skeleton key, I prefer to stay in control.

LAUREL ANNE HILL grew up in San Francisco, with more dreams of adventure than good sense or money. Her close brushes with death, love of family, respect for honor and belief in a higher power continue to influence her writing and her life. ForeWord Magazine selected Laurel�s debut parable, Heroes Arise, for a Book of the Year Award for 2007 (bronze, science fiction category). Laurel�s shorter works span the genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror and creative nonfiction.