Somewhere in the last few days, there was a post on Twitter on some, 'which book gave you the creeps?' or some such. And it was only after I gave an answer that I realised, "Man, I've given that particular answer a LOT."
Which, in itself, is a story. So. here's hoping you're sitting comfortably. Because this is a tale of horror. Mistaken identity. A slow burner with a lasting legacy. Ready?
Way, way back, when I was an Afro'd kid and I still watched horror films (yes, for the record, I don't watch them any more since they genuinely scare me), I was also reading horror novels. The likes of Alien, The Thing, The Omen, etc. All of these brought into the house by my oldest brother. As was one book called Incubus, written by Ray Russell. That one stuck with me. Good pace, intrigue, drama, horror, and a decent monster. One that was inhuman, dangerous, hard to spot, seemingly unstoppable. Yes, that book made an impression on me.
...but not so much that I could remember who actually wrote it. That part's important because, when I finally remembered the book years later, I bought what I thought was the same book: Incubus, by Ray Russell. What I actually bought was Incubus, by Joe Donnelly.
Both of these books are good books, well written, engaging and horrific. I have to give the nod to Joe Donnelly's version because, to date, it's the only book I've read that truly made my skin crawl. Even reading it in the daytime. The only book that came close was Stephen King's "Needful Things" - and that was specifically in the scene where, if memory serves, some kid's brother commits suicide and something strange is leaking out of his head.
I'm mindful of dissecting a work - my own work in particular(!), and it's not something I generally do. Partly because I feel it exposes the magic behind how I pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat (i.e. pull off the story). There are exceptions; But Worse Will Come is an example of this. You may see more examples of this in an upcoming work or two, so keep eyes and ears open. Those are cases where I feel the work lends itself to more of a wander into the mythos and how it came to be (along with why it came to be).
Back to the matter.
With my skin crawling like never before, I finally return to the Incubus aesthetic years down the line - without realising that I was doing it. Yeah, there are things that impress me and move me, but I don't always think, 'yeah, I'm gonna write like I read in that book' or 'I'm gonna pace this story like in that film I saw a few weeks back', etc. Certain aesthetics will resonate with you. Sauce on your food. More bass in your music. Blood and gore in your horror. Etc. etc. etc. You just go with it.
Joe Donnelly's Incubus has, for me, certain things I'd key into. The tagline alone: "What kind of baby would steal a mother?" Yes, you'd need to read the book to get the answer to that question, because I wouldn't tell you - but this, to me, is just another example of a tagline that hooks you. Right up there with "The Future Is History", "The first time was only a warning", and "Man Is The Warmest Place To Hide", etc. etc. etc. Probably my biggest takeaway from this book was the sense of pace. Yes, what happens in the story is important but so is the speed or the pace of it. In the same way you might hurry a meal if you're running late (and you 'shouldn't', really) or you might want to take your time with a hot date, pacing is just as important as the story itself. When I write, I'm mindful of pace, and while some readers aren't into how my stories are paced, that's okay. Just know that restraint in my pacing is deliberate.
And then we get to the villain of the piece. And with Incubus, this is probably the most important factor: how I realised what I was actually looking at! And it was so jarring and masterfully done, the sense of realisation brings a ...gravity and disgust at how wrong you were. That you've been so skillfully wrong-footed all along, you didn't even realise until something else had shown you. Let alone what the agenda is ...along with the outcome.
When it comes to monster aesthetics, there are a number of things I start with. What might terrify me. What I think might terrify other people. What might terrify my characters. All of which goes a lot deeper than weird eyes or a mouthful of fangs. But as to how much deeper and where?
Now, that would be telling.