Halloween 2022: Four Indian authors take us through the making of their scarefests

We get in Halloween mood with writers of the horror genre. From creation of all things spooky, their inspiration and belief in the paranormal, four Indian writers take us through the making of their books

Manasi Y MastakarUpdated: Sunday, October 30, 2022, 12:33 PM IST
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Hari K Kumar, India’s Most Haunted

Writing process

The core idea comes first – what is it that I am writing about – the soul of the story. This idea should not let me sleep for many nights. Then I choose my protagonist and s/he is bound by the core idea. Once I have these in place, then I visualise my beginning and ending. After that I start with an outline which helps me fill the gaps in between. It is easier said than done.

Inspiration

The inspiration comes from everyday life and news pieces from around the world. Like the idea of Dakhma came during my research for India’s Most Haunted. The inspiration for the protagonist – Anahita Anand, came from a close friend who has been through years of marital isolation and depression. Similarly, the inspiration for the book that I am writing comes from a personal experience that happened to last year.

To believe or not

That’s a trick question. I believe in my stories – and my stories are about ghosts and paranormal. Does that mean I believe in them in real life too? It is important to keep a scientific temperament when it comes to such things. Having said that, there are many things that science cannot explain today – ghosts being one of them.
I had some weird experiences ten years ago when I had contracted a critical viral illness. Had some time slips and lived someone else’s life during those moments. It was weird but again can be medically explained.

Changes in the genre

Horror has evolved from oral folk tales to cinemas to even reels. The change affects literature as well because it influences the writer’s creativity. Whether it is good or bad is completely subjective and debatable, but at the end of the day – I believe that if one doesn’t evolve with the world then they may become extinct.

Favourite horror writer

I love Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and Blatty’s The Exorcist. Of course, there is Stephen King and I also enjoyed Malayattoor Ramakrishnan’s Malayalam books.

Neil D’Silva, Playthings

Writing process

I don’t think I have a writing process. Having written over a dozen books, I have found that each story has a life of its own. Some require extensive plot and detailing, while others, like wayward children, run around and find their own way. I enjoy both — plotting and pantsing, as it is called. I have never been a strict plotter of my novels. I like to be surprised when I am writing. I focus on building the characters, the setting, and the backstory, and then I let all these elements play. As they unfold, most times even I am startled at how the story progresses. Since I write horror, this is quite rewarding. If I am able to be shocked by something my character does in the progress of the story, I feel I have written a good scene.

The inspiration

That depends on the story in question. Most times, it is rural folk stories and urban legends. India has a vast wealth of lore. Visit even the smallest towns and you will find that the people there have local stories to tell. These stories aren’t written. They are communicated orally and they have some influence on the lives of the people. I have found fascinating stories this way. Most notably, the folk legends of eastern India (Manipur, Meghalaya, Assam) are enchanting, while Bengal has tons of hair-raising horror legends. I was also quite consumed by a local legend I heard in Kashmir, which I have used in a forthcoming production. But mostly, my inspiration is the people around me. A horror author needs to be highly observant of human behaviour. That is where our detailing comes from.

To believe or not

The answer to this is not as black and white as we’d like it to be. I come from a science background with a masters in Organic Chemistry, which is why I have a deep understanding of scientific principles, especially of the constitution of matter. This is why I am, or used to be, quite sceptical about things like ghosts and spirits.

But, real life tells you otherwise. The quest for knowledge is about keeping your mind open, and this often gives you experiences that you cannot rationalise within the known parameters of science. Have I gone through so-called paranormal experiences? Yes, I have. Lights beginning to unreasonably flicker when I am writing a horror story, weird smells suddenly arising in a closed room, shadows flitting by on lonely roads — such stuff has happened to me, especially when I am in the thick of my horror writing. Again, I ask myself — are these just illusions? Maybe, maybe not. For now, I keep my mind open.

The most horrific thing that happened (still happens) to me are episodes of sleep paralysis. I won’t go into details, but those who have suffered these attacks know what I mean. Despite all the scientific explanations for them, when it truly happens you cannot but begin to think that there’s something quite unnatural at the root of it.

Like any horror author should, I am still trying to explore the true nature of the universe. And as we don’t know even a teensy bit of what the universe has to teach us, who are we to pass a judgement one way or the other?

Changes in the genre

Horror, like anything else, has transitioned through the decades. The wave of horror began in Hollywood in the 70s (with the slasher movies) and in India in the 80s (with the Ramsays). Since then, every decade has seen horror evolving and branching out into new, uncharted areas.

The basic change is to incorporate new elements within the storytelling. While the previous horror stories centred on a single “monster” or “unknown serial killer with supernatural powers” or “unexplainable phenomena”, today’s horror is more layered. The story in today’s horror is more about the protagonist—how the woman finds herself trapped in the inescapable situation, how the friends try to find their way out of a mind-bendingly haunted forest, how a family’s curse travels down the generations via a doll house. I am just giving examples, but you can see that today’s horror is no longer about the disfigured monster in a haveli or mansion.

I appreciate the fact that today’s horror has become more of a character study than being merely a dark fantasy tale. Our characters now have to deal with their inner demons as much as the outside monster.

The thing that we still have to improve, notably in the Indian horror space, is the storytelling. We tend to overcomplicate our plots by adding too many elements and jumpscares. This is especially true of horror on screen. In their bid to keep the audience glued to their screens, the OTT producers tend to pack in their episodes with so many elements that it spoils the broth. Our horror storytelling needs to take a step back and focus on developing more absorbing stories, because horror touches you only when it is relatable. That’s where we have to improve.

And horror comedies. Well, will speak about that in some other space…

Favourite horror writer

Edgar Allan Poe. I was an adolescent when I read Tell-tale Heart, an abridged toned-down version of it. I was so taken by the story’s rich gothic atmosphere and the entire undercurrent of guilt that I was inspired even back then as a kid to write something like that. Then I read more of Poe’s works, and each of those exquisite stories left indelible marks on my brain. If I achieve even an infinitesimal fraction of the genius that in Poe’s eccentric mind, I’d consider that my nirvana as a horror author.

Riksundar Banerjee, The Book of Indian Ghosts

Writing process

Horror is an emotional state of mind. I think there is a subtle touch of illusion in horror stories. The deep structures of the horror stories throughout the world are mostly the same but in the build up portion or in the surface structure the difference lies. I emphasize in creating the ghostliness or the environment of fear. If the ghost is visible once or the cause of the fear is revealed before the climax then the tension of the suspense drops. I think the plot should be fast in horror stories and there should be some subtle hints and delicate touches.

The inspiration

I got the interest first in childhood from the books of ghost stories and then the rereading of those books after growing up helped me visualise some deeper philosophies. I realised that horror stories or ghost stories are not only fantasy tales, but serious social and political messages are portrayed through them. Ghost stories could be the tool where calling a spade a spade is much easier. There is a deep connection with ghost stories and self existence. Ghost stories are related to the sense of death which makes us conscious about our body. Therefore, horror/ghost stories can dive deep into the inner self while reflecting the socio-political issues strongly. This would be a perfect genre for a writer to explore and experiment.

To believe or not

I do not believe in ghosts but believe in ghostliness. The ambiance, the eeriness, the haunted past, the guilty mind’s suspicion all are a part of horror stories/movies. I believe in these features. Dead people can not return but their emptiness can haunt us. One day, I will be a part of this emptiness as well. In my experience people are haunted by their own death more than anything. The idea of return of the dead is not only a fear but a subtle hint of still being able to linger somehow as a part of the world. I believe in this echo of the void. I got some beautiful story ideas in my dream. I think those are the blessings of THEM.

Changes in the genre

Literature gets updated with the time or with the materials of civilisation. Empty rail stations without electricity are rare nowadays. Ghost stories are being written in the urban plots including multiplexes and high rise towers. Ghosts are not coming only in the dark, but they are familiar with daylight as well.

I like this adaptation of the ghosts with time and society. Ghosts are calling mobile phones, are active on social media. The way we make video calls these days, were part of fantasies and witchcraft just a couple of decades back, where only dark magic could make you see someone far away. Now even ghosts are making video calls to make contact with their victims.
I like this correlation between ghosts and science/technology. Though both lie on opposite poles, the ghosts beneath the technology are the new normal.

What I dislike is the extravagant body horror and terrific looking ghost descriptions in plots.

Favourite horror writer

Tough to mention one. Bengali is my first language so I can remember a lot of writers but will keep Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay first. I will undoubtedly go for Stephen King when it comes to World literature.

Tanushree Podder, Spooky Stories

Writing process

I write in various genres, including horror. My writing process is more or less the same for all genres. It begins with a broad outline of an interesting plot and then I create a strong protagonist to carry the story forward. As a fiction writer, I like to get inside the minds of my characters and allow  them to narrate the story. This gives me clarity. Then, I research extensively the various elements that will go into the story. If it’s a period drama, the research involves the social, clothes, food, etc, of that time. I chart out the flow and the climax. Once these elements are decided, I go ahead with the writing.

The inspiration

I find inspiration all around me. It comes from people I encounter, places I visit, and the incidents that take place around me. The stories are inspired by the things I hear, read, and see. Sometimes, the news I read can result in a story. Also, I read extensively, and sometimes a line from a book could spark an excellent story idea.

To believe or not

Most scientists will tell you that ghosts don’t exist, and paranormal investigators will tell you they exist. In fact, most people don’t encounter ghosts during their lifetime. We don’t see God, but we believe there is God. Similarly, I believe there are some inexplicable presences around us. There are events that don’t have scientific explanations. There are things we don’t fully understand. However, I think there are some supernatural beings around us.

I haven’t seen a ghost. Not yet. But I have sensed a strange presence, at times. During such times, I have wondered if it’s my imagination playing tricks. It’s all about the sixth sense. You may sense, but not see ghosts.

Changes in the genre

There’s definitely been a change over the years, as far as horror stories are concerned. The treatment of the subject has changed. From writing about ghosts, we have now ventured into the convoluted and dark labyrinth of the human mind. Writers are constantly exploring and experimenting to make the genre more interesting. It’s a welcome change that will bring popularity to the genre. Readers want fresh outlooks and interesting stories, and that’s what writers are trying to achieve.

Favourite horror writer

Stephen King... He’s the king of horror and paranormal writing.

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