Published: May 26, 2016 12:00:00 PM

a-slanted-tower.jpgDuring my younger years, I would sometimes drive eight hours a day through the empiness of rural New Hampshire, interviewing for jobs. Writing that sentence fills my mouth with tasteless loneliness.

I had a few things to occupy myself: the ultra-long ambient Nine Inch Nails album, "GHOSTS I-IV," released earlier that year, a jar of iced coffee brewed from my own recipe, and Stephen King novels on audiobook.

And dread. Youthful, livid dread that my life might die on the vine. The Stephen King audiobooks didn't help that, but I realize I had immersed myself in the frantic mind of a creative soul, who knew the feeling.

Stephen King's The Dark Tower series put its arm around my shoulder, and through a hitched-up grin, it said, "You and I are gonna be great friends." That was how I met evil.

How To Write About Dread

I've been writing since before I knew it was something only vain freaks did. I have a gift where my mind imagines tens of possible outcomes to real-life conversations, shuffles them like toddler playing with a loaf of sliced bread, and makes them into lifetimes that will never exist. It's great for making up nonsense, as you'll notice. The trouble is, I remained bound by the constraints of storytelling, taught by the trash on television. It was a bad influence. I had difficulty getting the lessons from elsewhere. I'm not good at reading. It hurts my eyes, and I have a minor disorder that sometimes rearranges words in my head, possibly a symptom of an accelerated imagination.

I needed the structure. This was when I first encountered archetypial tropes, protagonists, antagonists, things like that. I want to tell you how to write about dread.

I thought the antagonists were the most fun to write. They would swing in from out of view, berate the hero's idology, act upon feral instinct that protagonists struggle to suppress for the sake of stability, and then the villain vanishes.

Villains are dread given a face. They are often built as a convenient bad-luck-bullet. More personal than a hurricane, they embody a nibbling anxiety that goodness may turn to ash in our mouths in a moment.

It's sad, but terrific bad guys steal the show. If you want to know how to write about dread, you'll want to begin writing a hero struggling to maintain control of their own narrative. Good guys are life, consistency, continuation. Bad guys, the opposite.

So, how to write about terror, horror, dread? Fortunately, fictional evil is fascinating. It's everything that we reckon real life ought not to be. Fictional evil is an unfunny joke, a humorless parody. Sometimes creators will add humor to lighten the mood, to keep it from becoming too real.

Because non-fiction evil, what we dread the most, is not fascinating. With all the fiction we've absorbed and all the history at our fingertips, the moment we recognize a living villain out in the wild, that is true dread, because the first paralyzing question we ask is: "How did we let this happen?"

Writing about true dread is a matter of realizing that true remorse. How did we let this happen? As the devil puts an arm around your shoulder, and tells you you're going to be friends, you recognize that it's too late. You're acquainted now. The feeling can come and go as it pleases. It owns you now. Whether in real life, or in written fiction, dread, moving freely, unstoppable, is the greatest, living evil imaginable.

How to write dread? The same way you write a blog post: by giving chaos purpose.

-- Alex Crumb
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