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A magazine of all-new swords & sorcery fiction in the classic pulp style!
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The Three Ms: Writing Horror in Sword & Sorcery

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Hello, everyone! A big welcome to all the new backers! As part of this Kickstarter we are presenting essays on sword-and-sorcery fiction written by our contributors. If you're new to the Kickstarter, you can catch up by reading these previous essays:

Today's update covers another aspect of sword-and-sorcery: horror. Tales From The Magician's Skull does have a story or two that bend a little bit toward horror. Here is Aeryn Rudel to tell us more...

The Three Ms: Writing Horror in Sword & Sorcery

By Aeryn Rudel

Although I’ve written a lot of fantasy, if I’m being honest with myself, it’s horror that really gets my writerly blood pumping. The great thing about horror is it can be easily added to almost any other genre. I mean, you got your dark fantasy ala Game of Thrones, your Alien-esque sci-fi horror, and then there’s sword-and-sorcery, a genre that is a close cousin to horror, one that fairly begs an author to take a left turn into the dark.

For the horror author, the best part about sword-and-sorcery is what I call the three Ms: magic, monsters, and mayhem. Each of these genre-defining tropes lends itself to horror with the slightest of tweaking, and here’s how I like to spin those dials. 

Magic: Maybe the most important trope in sword-and-sorcery, magic is often portrayed as ancient and unknowable, the kind of thing mortals aren’t meant to understand and meddle with at their own peril. The hero rarely uses magic himself, and more often than not, it’s magic or a magic-user that stands between the hero and his goal.

I think the source of magic in sword-and-sorcery is the easiest dial to turn for the horror writer. Magic learned from demons and ancient alien gods instead of something more benign, i.e., human, is a perfect way to add a horrific element. The use of magic, even when it helps the hero, should always have terrible, soul-scarring consequences. And, again because of its otherworldly origin, any human that uses magic on a regular basis ceases being truly human and likely becomes that second M trope: a monster.

Monsters: What’s a sword-and-sorcery tale without a good monster? Not one I’m likely to read. Monsters are another common staple of sword-and-sorcery, and like magic, they lend themselves to the horrific with little coaxing. I tend to take a slightly different tack with monsters when I need to ramp up the horror in my sword-and-sorcery. I find monsters with some human element to be more terrifying than shambling beasts and squishy things in the dark. Men transformed into monsters by the use of magic (remember that first M), either willingly or unwillingly, add a level of psychological horror I really like. For example, take a look at the fractured mind of the protagonist in my story “Beyond the Block.” When he realizes he lives beyond the grave, that moment of helpless terror is far more frightening to me than a horde of flesh-eating zombies.

Mayhem: Okay, I stretched this last one to make it fit into my three Ms, but what I mean here is action, and action in sword-and-sorcery is almost always going to be the kind with swords, axes, and other implements of death. So, how do you make that more horrific? Easy, you make it more real. Combat in sword-and-sorcery is often stylized, with the realities of such combat glossed over or ignored entirely. So, don’t ignore them. Do some research on wound trauma and learn what happens to the human body when it gets stabbed, crushed, or dismembered. Learn how sword-fighting actually worked in a historical context, how armor worked, and how it could be defeated. All these things add a level of gritty realness to your story that grounds it, makes it more personal, and, in the end, makes it more terrifying when blood is shed, skulls cracked, and entrails spilled. 

Of course, this is just scratching the surface of how horror and sword-and-sorcery share literary DNA. The two have had a long and successful partnership that many authors, including the giants in the genre, have explored at length. If you’d like a closer look at how I combine the two, read my story “Beyond the Block” in the first issue of The Magician’s Skull.

JediOre, Michael Austin, and 6 more people like this update.

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