Ingredients of Action Horror

Action horror. A fiction contradiction if there ever was one.

Action stories are about agency: the character’s ability to act on the environment, to overcome all odds, to destroy all foes in his path. Horror relies heavily on a lack of agency: the inability to directly confront the horror, and with it, the despair that comes from receiving the attentions of a creature far more powerful than yourself. Both genres are at odds with each other.

But only in postmodern fiction.

Robert E Howard deftly wrote stories of adventurers, monsters, and bloody battles between them. C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry was a warrior and a sovereign whose adventures pitted her against the supernatural. Even H. P. Lovecraft wrote tales of mere men confronting cosmic horrors—and winning.

To understand the ingredients of a successful action horror story, we must reject modernity and embrace the weird tale.

Action and Horror Defined

The action genre is self-explanatory. An action story thrusts the protagonist into a series of fast-paced events, often requiring violence, struggles and feats of strength and courage. The protagonist acts upon the world, and imposes his will on everything he can touch.

Horror is more nebulous. It elicits reactions of fright, terror, disgust, repulsion, loathing, and other similar negative reactions. The source of horror—a monster, an evil human, a demon—must pose a threat to the characters, and it must exist outside societal norms.

At heart is the question of threat. If the horror poses no threat to the characters, it can be dismissed or otherwise defeated as easily as taking candy from a baby. To maintain this threat level, much modern horror takes pains to degrade the characters.

Modern horror films are infamous for stupid characters acting stupidly. Dumb decisions are practically a genre trope. From watching a tape known to kill people to splitting up the party, characters act in stupid ways so that the threat seems even more terrifying.

Modern games take advantage of control schemes to artificially reduce the character’s capabilities. The classic Resident Evil games are infamous for their tank-like controls and stationary aiming. Characters cannot step when aiming, and have to rotate in place like a tank turret. Ammunition is also scarce, requiring players to pick their battles and aim carefully. Combat is de-emphasised in horror games, if not outright non-existent, with the player forced to run and hide from the horror. This creates a cat and mouse dynamic, with the player as the mouse. Or a snake and eagle, with the horror as the eagle and the player as the snake barely capable of defending itself.

An action story requires capable characters. Characters who are competent, well-trained and -equipped, and capable of taking on the threats before them. They cannot be artificially hindered. Any reduction in capability serves to ratchet up the tension and show how the characters overcome even-greater odds—but they do not change the tone of the story. In an action story, if a character is injured, he will find ways to treat his injury and carry on. If he loses a weapon or runs out of ammo, he takes the enemy’s gear or improvises. The story continues to move at a relentless pace.

Action horror stories that lean too heavily on the action de-emphasise the threat of the horror. Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International series pits the titular monster hunters against a host of monsters. While the monsters are dangerous (to civilians), the hunters bring superior firepower to the table, placing the monsters at a grave disadvantage. With the reduced threat perception, the horror diminishes.

This is especially visible in modern survival horror games. Dead Space begins with Isaac Clarke, a civilian engineer, trapped aboard a starship infested with undead alien horrors. As the series progresses, Clarke (and you) learns more about the monsters, prepares himself for the threat they pose, and wades into battle with them. By Dead Space 3, the tone shifts from tension and fear to action-heavy setpieces. Likewise, Resident Evil began with characters trapped in a zombie-filled mansion with limited ammo and maneuverability. From RE 4 onwards, the tone shifted to intense action.

Such fiction is technically ‘horror’ in that encountering the horror evokes dread, disgust and repulsion. At the same time, it is hard to be horrified of something once it is lying in a crumpled heap with a hole in its head. With repeated contact, and increased knowledge of the horror, it stops being frightening. Lacking fright, the tale must inevitably switch to action to retain interest.

I choose a different approach.

Fear and Loathing

What makes a good horror tale?

The horror. Not the threat posed by the horror.

Modern fiction over-emphasises the threat and the visual impact of the horror, at the expense of everything else. A story that artificially hinders the characters and helps the horror comes off as forced and inauthentic. Repeated contact with the horror desensitises the audience to it. In an action horror story, in which both the protagonist and the horror are highly dangerous, and they encounter each other repeatedly, this approach will fail.

Which was why the pulp grandmasters utilized a superior approach.

In most of H. P. Lovecraft’s stories, the horror is seen only once, at the climax. Even then, it is left only vaguely described. Instead, through lengthy passages of purple prose, Lovecraft creates an atmosphere of dread, builds up tension, and shifts the reader from the mundane world to strange and supernatural realms, before delivering the soul-shocking revelation.

Lovecraft said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is of the unknown.” He deliberately invoked the fear of the unknown, keeping the horror a mystery until the final pages, and what little is revealed of it during the characters’ explorations only emphasise its unnaturalness. The characters study not the horror itself, but its past, its exploits, its cults, creating the impression of an entity so far beyond the comprehension of humanity that when it comes time to meet the horror the reader is primed to accept the inevitable mental breakdown that follows.

Robert E Howard was one of Lovecraft’s contemporaries, and borrowed some of his horror ideas in his own work. Unlike Lovecraft’s intellectualism, however, Howard favoured red-blooded pulse-pounding stories. He had his own approach to the weird tale.

Howard’s Conan fought many strange and legendary beasts. Gigantic snakes, bloodthirsty apes, demons from the depths of hell. Conan is a powerful combatant, but so are the monsters he faces. Limited to blades and empty hands, Conan battles them at melee range, the range where both sides pose great risk to each other.

While Solomon Kane lives in an age of gunpowder, he carries single-shot flintlocks. After expending his ammunition, he must face his enemies with his trusty dirk and rapier—and inevitably he fights swarms of men and monsters, too many for him to gun down. Like Conan, Kane is forced to do battle in melee range, exposing himself to grave danger.

Correia’s monster hunters engage their foes with big guns at long range, managing the threat. Kane and Conan must place themselves at risk to engage their foes. Their enemies pose equal threat at best, and usually are more threatening than them. Conan’s monsters have superior strength and mass, while Kane’s monsters have superior numbers, making every battle a struggle.

While the threat perception in Howard’s fiction is heavily skewed towards the monsters, his characters are skilled fighters in their own right. With every engagement, Howard elevates his characters, showing their skill and strength, instead of having them make stupid decisions that debase them in the readers’ eyes.

Howard, too, creates an atmosphere of dread in his descriptions. Brisk but vivid, he paints pictures of the horrors his characters faces, portraying them as unnatural beings transcending human comprehension. In The Footfalls Within, Solomon Kane confronts a demon once sealed away by King Solomon, and in the aftermath he comes to grips with the terrifying implications of the demon’s existence.

With all the action and excitement of these confrontations, we must not lose sight of what makes the pulp-era horrors threatening and horrifying. It is not the threat they pose to the characters. It is not the spells they possess, their bloodthirstiness, their ability to destroy men in the space of a breath. It is what they represent.

Lovecraft’s cosmic entities are beings that cannot be explained by science, exposing the limitations of human knowledge. Their cults are insidious foreign influences that corrupt a pure and noble society and destroy it from within. Such horrors are unknown, and in learning about them you become them. The deeper you explore their mysteries, the more twisted and alien you become. This is best seen in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, when the author finally understands his heritage.

Howard’s monsters are dangerous predators from the dim mists of antiquity. They speak to the primal instincts of the reader, recalling ancient savage times when cavemen huddled around fires in fear of the predators that prowled the land. His demons whisper of realms beyond the knowledge of men, of entities that seek the ruin of souls and empires. Barbarians, bandits and cannibals point to the secret darkness that festers in the hearts of all men, waiting to be unloosed.

Horrors from the weird tales point to the dark, the unknown and the perilous, to things greater than men and beyond mortal understanding, to vast gulfs of space and time, to the inevitable collapse of civilization, to the evil within. The true horror comes not just from the threat these creatures pose to the characters, nor from their appearance, but the implications of their existence and the atmosphere around them.

Horror fiction is fundamentally moral. The horror represents a deviation from what is true, good and beautiful. By threatening the characters, it threatens society by proxy. Overcoming the horror demands that the characters act in morally upright ways. This could be as simple as cooperating to carry out a complex task to defeat the creature, or as dramatic as calling upon a higher power to intervene. 

This is the path I chose for Babylon.

The Babylon Approach

This is Babylon: cyberpunk action horror, with heavy doses of authenticity and undercurrents of Christian mysticism.

Horror is the heart of the series. The protagonist Yuri Yamamoto stands against demons and cultists with supernatural powers. To make this work, I drew upon the lessons from the pulp era.

Yuri and his allies are skilled, but his enemies are even more powerful. The New Gods have access to cutting-edge technology, superior firepower, endless armies of faceless goons, and supernatural powers. Yuri and his team are only human—but Yuri is a believer, and his faith grants him a powerful, but not absolute, advantage. His faith can neutralize black magic, but the rest is up to him and his team—and against supertech, his faith doesn’t do anything at all.

The true capabilities of the New Gods remain mysteries. While each faction has its specific theme, most of their abilities are left unexplained and unrevealed. The technologies they employ also remain mostly hidden. The gods themselves rarely show up. This keeps the reader constantly guessing what new surprises the New Gods will pull next.

The New Gods themselves represent heresies and blasphemies. They offer a Faustian bargain: sell your soul to them in exchange for temporal power, pleasure and wealth. The higher a cultist climbs the ranks, the more control the New Gods have over them. Their soldiers become meat puppets in service of their endless wars and conflicts. Their respective ideologies are fundamentally anti-human: taken to the logical endpoint, they corrupt society, degrade freedom, and enslave the soul. Long after the final gunshot fades, the implications of their existence lingers in the reader’s mind.

While powerful, the New Gods are not all-powerful. Their plots can be defeated. Their soldiers can be slain. The gods themselves can be held at bay. Through superior teamwork and strategies, Yuri and his team defeats horrors the New Gods sends their way. With the power of faith, Yuri neutralizes the worst of their powers and sends them packing.

But what happens when Yuri Yamamoto has to leave Babylon?

That is the premise of Babylon Red. While Yuri Yamamoto in self-imposed exile, it falls to the remaining members of Team Black Watch to stand against the New Gods. Without their leader, without a street samurai with an unshakeable faith, how will they stand against the awesome might of the New Gods?

You can find out here in the crowdfunding campaign for Babylon Red!

Ingredients of Action Horror

3 thoughts on “Ingredients of Action Horror

  1. Point of view is important. Some clods can not feel the terror and so convey it to the reader. Even when they are dying.

  2. Slight disagreement about “horror”.

    IMO Horror is about a menace outside of the world view of the main characters.

    Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot was horror because none of the characters really believed that vampires were real.

    In Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files Harry Dresden knows that vampires are real and the vampires are extremely dangerous even for him.

    Thus, I don’t see the fictional contradiction in Action Horror. Of course, with Horror there’s a period when the heroes have to realize that the Monsters are real. 😀

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