Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Koko by Peter Straub

At three o'clock i the afternoon of a grey, blowing mid-November day, a baby doctor named Michael Poole looked down through the windows of his second-floor room into the parking lot of the Sheraton Hotel.

I have high standards when it comes to horror. The standard is that I must be scared or disturbed on the first page, and/or I must find something unsettling in the writing. I use The Haunting of Hill House as my guiding light. That opening line is about as perfect as it gets for a horror novel. I rarely see anything that comes close to it, not even from the so-called experts of horror like Stephen King or Peter Straub.

This line begins with that age-old cliche: weather, before shifting to some guy looking out a window. It is not scary, though is perhaps a little moody. In support of Mood we have phrasing like that of baby doctor which does unsettle, ever so slightly. As well, the wording in places support the dark fantasy mood in the opening paragraph: we have words like lunatic, grinding, frustrated, enemy, damn and sacrificed. But it takes more than the right wording to hook a horror fanatic.

Mood is vital to getting the reader in the mood to be scared, but it needs to be in conjunction with character and conflict and not introduced first all by itself, as if there is some order to unrolling the literary devices in order to tell a story.

First thing said:

"Well, damn."

Verdict: Fail

With horror novels I don't want the promise of fear. I want it on the first page and in the first sentence. If the opening doesn't have the goods, then a horror novel is not doing what it's supposed to be doing on page 1 and therefore will not hook. This hooks because it contains the byline hook. If John Smith wrote this, with this opening, it would never see the light of day, which is to say, there is justice in the Universe, just not in these parts.

Theodore Moracht

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