The Creep Factor

“Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole (2011)… Burrows combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

I read that review back in 2012 and wondered, “What’s Publishers Weekly?”

I honestly didn’t know much about reviewers, or starred reviews, but I hadn’t written a horror novel, had I?

Burrows was simply the second book in my Red River series about precocious ten-year-old kids living in a Mayberry-like setting when a killer comes to town.

But horror?

Always a fan of that genre, I cut my teeth on H.P. Lovecraft, graduating from there to Stephen King, Karl Edward Wagner, Gary Brandner, Richard Matheson and I admit, I read a lot of John Saul and shame on me, V.C. Andrews, but I hadn’t set out to write a novel meant to scare, startle, shock, and even repulse my new readers. I just wanted to tell a creepy story and start it with something I’d written years earlier.

They say the key focus of a horror novel is to elicit a sense of dread through frightening images, themes, and situations.

I didn’t know that either, at the time.

But I did remember that Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

It was the unknown part I was shooting for somewhere around 2001 with an attempt to get Stephen King’s attention as part of an online short story contest after his book, On Writing, was released. Once I learned that he was looking for short stories, I sat down to write one.

Wait, what? I’d never written a short story.

Well, that wasn’t completely true. I’d attempted one back in the 1980s that was damned near a novella and it was almost published by a magazine that shut down only a month after they accepted my submission. Sigh.

Hey, just write shorter, I thought. And I did.

Five entries out of 1,000 submissions won the contest and their names were posted on Mr. King’s website, but my story, Drip, didn’t make the cut. Not wanting to waste the effort, I submitted Drip to several magazines. No one else wanted it either. I wonder if it was the title. Anyway, with a stack of rejection notices the size of a ham sandwich, I stuck it in a drawer until my editor called.

“Well, now that The Rock Hole is scheduled for release in a few months, when can we expect your next novel?”


“We need it pretty fast.” She gave me a deadline. “I can’t wait to see what you come up with. Toodles.”

I spoke into the dead line. “Neither can I.”

Somewhat desperate, I had an idea and dug that old short story out of my computer files to re-read what I’d written so long ago. It began with one word, drip, hence the title. The scene? Kendall Boden has a casual, one-sided conversation with a man with a bullet in his head, as blood slowly drips from the victim’s nose to puddle in his lap.

From there, someone discovers a headless body in the Red River, and the novel is off and running with Cody Parker’s nightmare premonition playing out in real life. A hoarder of the first order has filled the multi-story abandoned Cotton Exchange with tons of scavenged garbage and booby traps. Pursuing a lead, Cody and Deputy John Washington find themselves inside the fire trap, lost in a deadly maze of burrows and their own personal terrors.

Everything revolves around a suspect from the town’s past who needs to be caught before more headless bodies pile up, and they do.

So what was it that made some reviewers call this a horror novel, while I thought I was simply writing a second mystery?

Well, it scared the pee-waddlin’ out of folks for one thing. Trapped inside a shoulder-wide burrow?


Some readers said they couldn’t finish it because it was too claustrophobic. That makes sense, we all have certain things that terrify us, and that includes spiders…

…that are in the novel, as well as rats and moldering corpses…

…yeah, they’re in there too, along with a lunatic who is the architect of it all, but even that crazy person isn’t as he seems.

Upon submission six months later, my agent told me that first chapter was the most frightening thing she’d ever read. Yeah, the unsellable short story, Drip, was Chapter One. Take that, Mr. King.

We’re all familiar with movies in this genre that startles us with people who suddenly jump out of nowhere, or shock us with a hand reaching from the darkness, or a human-like creature who looks at the audience with psychotic eyes from under lowered brows. I call them shock films.

But movies are different than horror novels.

Written or literary horror slowly feeds on audience’s deepest terrors, and not the abovementioned Shock Factor. It’s built upon those things which scare us as individuals, such as death, evil, the supernatural, or creatures that slither around out there in the darkness. It’s built upon the unknown.

How do you write horror? In my opinion you have to quit trying to say things that you think are scary.

Instead, create an atmosphere of dread. Show, don’t tell.

Horror isn’t splattered blood and guts. Oh, I guess that’s horrific if you really come across it. When I was a kid I followed my grandfather into a murder scene (he was a constable), and was witness to fresh blood still running down the walls and dripping from the ceiling in the living room of a small frame house out in the country. When he realized I was behind him, he knocked me back through the screen door with the flat of his hand and ordered me to stay outside.

Come to think of it, the sight of all that blood wasn’t horrific at all, but maybe it waited somewhere deep inside to reemerge in a more subtle way through my writing.

Again, horror is a carefully designed build of dread and suspense. To be successful, get inside the reader’s head and show them what scares them the most. Create a world where their deepest fears can be reality. Find something that’s common and benign, and dig deeper to reveal a surprise or twist that will haunt your reader long after they close the book.

Find something that’s festering inside them, and pick it out.

What’s more creepy than a huge old decaying building full of living, squirming creatures that live in absolute darkness and brush up against you, or crawl over your trapped body.

What about a troubled character with a pitiful, miserable past full of secrets that comes calling after years of treatment in psychiatric hospitals?

One reader told me Burrows scared him because he had a personal fear that tons of refuse could come down at any minute to crush him into paste. I’ve often wondered where that dread originated.

I thought I’d written an historical mystery thriller, but in the end, I hammered out a work that seriously creeped people out. Fans still tell me, “That was the scariest book I’ve read in years.”


They answer, “Because it could happen.”

Or, “Because I’m deathly afraid of rats.”

And often, “Because I’m claustrophobic. I had to read one chapter a night, then calm myself each time.”

I’ve heard, “I was shocked at the twist.”

And when they say, “Because there could be people like that living amongst us.”

I reply, “There are, and that’s horrifying because it’s real.”

What’s your creep factor?




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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

31 thoughts on “The Creep Factor

  1. I don’t read horror. I don’t want to be scared when I read. Period. My turnoffs would be fires and drownings. I read a short story by a favorite author and since I knew the genre would have the guy with his foot stuck between two rocks in the bottom of the ocean with a limited amount of air survive, (his girlfriend was going to return with a fresh air tank) I had to force myself to finish (because I almost always finish what I start).
    You can make me laugh, make me cry, but don’t scare me.

    • I understand completely. The thing is, I’ve never read or seen anything in the movies that actually scared me. Guess I’m geared differently. But…I know horror is all around us in real life, and that comes from disturbed people, or incomprehensible accidents. Have a great weekend!

  2. Great post, Rev. Thanks for the lessons on horror. Not my genre, but it’s good to learn more about how to create fear and dread, even in other genres.

    My creep factor: the unknown dangers in the dark. Probably from a childhood experience where a summer camp counselor lead a group of young boys out into unknown territory, in total darkness, for a sleep over…then left us behind to chase the girls. We had to find our way over barbed wire fences and wooded lots, with no flashlights and not even knowing whether we were going in the right direction.

    That, and dog attacks, but that’s another story.

    Have a dread-free weekend!

    • Steve, horror in the Stephen King sense isn’t my genre, either, but that one novel just turned out that way. I’m not sure I could do it again, though I’ve written a humor/horror western that I don’t know what to do with…

  3. LOVE horror. I’d try to write it if my agent would let me (Laura, don’t split your brand).
    You nailed mine – spiders.
    But reading horror is worse for me than movies – a writer’s imagination makes it SO much worse!
    I love ones that make you afraid of the normal you see around you – King is, well, the King of that.
    I just read The Return, by Rachel Harrison – brilliant, because it’s about 4 close girlfriends since college. The fact that they are so much a part of each other’s lives and shared memories makes it SO much worse when one of them ‘returns’. Wow.

    • Laura, just curious, if you care to comment, why couldn’t you also write in the horror genre? Like under a different name if needed?

    • I’m uncomfortable with some things in literature. I read a novel years ago set out in a rural area. The antagonist kidnapped a man’s wife and used her while the husband tried to track them down. THAT is horrific, in my mind.

      Have a great weekend.

  4. I’m with Laura. Spiders. Also, in horror movies, the “injury to the eye” motif. Yikes. I’ll try not to think of those for the rest of the day. We know how well that works.

    • I’m with you, Joe. I’ve worn glasses since my junior year and may never have the surgery (unless my cataracts get bad). I can’t tell you how many times twigs, limbs, bugs, or even stiff grass has hit my lenses. the though of something going in my eye is damned uncomfortable at best.

      later gator

  5. I’m not a reader of horror, but this conversation doesn’t apply to just horror. It reminds me of a struggle I have with a favorite genre, the western.

    You wrote “Horror isn’t splattered blood and guts.” I grew up watching westerns on television, less so western movies. But anyone who watched westerns during that time knows they focused on telling the story, not the violence. Bang your dead. We didn’t need to see a lot of gore. We were smart enough to figure out what happens to a person when they get shot.

    As the decades passed I watched a couple western film remakes, and for me, they forgot about telling the story and got swallowed up by focusing on the violence. A different twist on show don’t tell. They certainly pulled out all the stops showing the violence, but didn’t do much for telling the story. Or at least the story was lost on me because all I remember was the violence.

    Drawing out the reader’s emotions, such as dread & building suspense as you mentioned, playing on the reader’s emotions, needs to be the focus, no matter what genre you write. Good reminder of what we’re really after.

    • Thank you sir.

      The Wild Bunch was my first introduction to the violent western, but I loved it. I have the extended Director’s cut on DVD, and at my age, I see more story than I once did. Peckinpaugh nailed the story about change and aging. Watch it and see what you think.


  6. I read a ton of psychological thrillers with what some might call horror elements. And yet, not one has scared me. I’ve feared for the protagonist, but it didn’t cause fear within myself. Though I have experienced fear many times while writing, triggering nightmares. Congrats on the PW starred review, Rev!

    • Thanks! It was long ago, and though professional reviewers have been good to me in the years since, that was my only one. Wish I’d known how cool it was back then when it happened. I’d have probably needed a new hat.

  7. Squeeeee! A horror post! (I am a horror author. Mostly magazines and anthologies, but I have a novella coming out later this year with Potter’s Grove Press.) Anyway, to answer your question, cruel, cackling, hags with long, yellow fingernails creep me out. I have a story with that antagonist in a slush pile right now. Readers have commented on scary parts of my stories that had claustrophobia, dirt haints, religion gone askew, toothy creatures, and insanity.

    • Watch the paranormal show, THE DEAD FILES, on the Travel Channel. Amy Allen, one of the best mediums in the world, walks through a home where a family is being terrorized by the supernatural and talks about what she sees and what is happening. Meanwhile, her partner, a retired NYC homicide detective, interviews the family and does historical research. At the end of the show, Amy and the cop Steve sit down with the family and tell them what is happening, and Steve ties her findings with his, or not. Then she tells the family how they can fix things or whether they should get the heck out of there while they can.

      Without the first EVP or ghost picture, the show scares the living crap out me because of what it tells about things unseen in our world. A dead pedofile serial killer hanging around living small children is truly horrifying.

  8. You captured the “creep factor” brilliantly, Rev. When I was younger I enjoyed cosmic horror along the lines of HP Lovecraft, Robert Block, King’s “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” etc. but these days I prefer less fearful fare.

    I’d say heights, when I’m near the edge of a building, castle wall, etc, are a personal creep factor. Call it “A Little Vertigo.”

    • I still love good horror ala Lovecraft, Matheson, and King. It seems that most of today’s writers miss the mark, or maybe it’s because I’m getting older and have seen so much real horror in my life.

      Stay away from treehouses.


  9. I’m sorry if this comment posts twice. My screen went blank as I hit “post comment” earlier. Anyway, I love horror! I am a newer horror author, and my personal creep factor are hags, especially if they hide in my closet at night.:-) I’ve had readers comment on what they thought were scary in my stories: toothy creatures, dirt haints, claustrophobia, and brainwashing.

  10. Lately, I been peeing my pants at the gas pump. Gives me chills just thinking about it.

  11. I like Lovecraft, yes, and Robert Bloch. And Poe, of course. I’ve started a horror screenplay, but I’m not that fond of the genre to finish it. I’d rather write and read other genres. At camp in the 50’s, we’d furtively pass around horror comics. I can still remember some of the themes. One story was based on, IIRR, “The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles.” Another was about a cobbler who, when asked by a Nazi officer to make him a pair of unusual boots, creates a pair that will explode if the heels are clicked together. Our library at home, come to think of it, had a volume titled, “Strange Tales of Horror and the Supernatural.” I remember watching a great film version of “The Horla” on TV in the 50s, too. What was the name of that show? Outer Limits? And there was “Inner Sanctum,” on radio, with its creaking door.

    • The “Gnoles” and Nazi boots sounds like the original TWILIGHT ZONE although I can’t point to the specific episodes. During my research, I learned that the “Gnoles” story is a parody of a Lord Dunsany short story. TWILIGHT ZONE used a lot of short stories of the period including works by Manly Wade Wellman who wrote Appalachian folklore horror.

  12. The idea of getting a great review from “Publishers Weekly” and not knowing how incredible that is horrifies me. I met Joe Lansdale, years ago, at a local science fiction convention before he became a Name. After an authors’ panel, I came up to the group to show them an article on the subject from the most recent copy of “Romantic Times,” the premier romance review magazine of the period. (Romance readers are genre omnivores who will buy and read anything that is well-written with great characters.)

    Anyway, all the authors were polite and glanced at the article, but “Romance” in the title made their eyes glaze over. Lansdale flipped through the magazine, asked a bunch of questions about the readership, learned that it reviewed horror, and thanked me. He had a book review and a feature article in the magazine within six months. I was not surprised when he became a Name.

  13. I don’t usually read or watch horror stories that are blood and guts…if it’s too graphic, my wee little mind can’t take it.

    But, what creeps me out? It’s not the blood and guts. It’s what real live people do to each other on this planet. Trafficking is first on that list. I really can’t stand to think about what happens to people. Second on the list is child and elder abuse.

    I’m afraid if I were anywhere near people who are so twisted and depraved, I’d lose my cool and have to keep up with y’all from a prison cell.

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