Oh the Horror of It All! - Stephen King on Writing What You Know in Thrillers: Background information when reading Jack of Spades

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Read-Alikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Jack of Spades

A Tale of Suspense

by Joyce Carol Oates

Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates X
Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    May 2015, 208 pages

    May 2016, 240 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez
Buy This Book

About this Book

Oh the Horror of It All! - Stephen King on Writing What You Know in Thrillers

This article relates to Jack of Spades

Print Review

Roller CoasterThe consensus across a wide swath of authors and writing teachers is "write what you know." This advice may be even more important when writing a horror story. Sure, horror stories characteristically feature things that are not known, not normal, unfamiliar in the extreme. That's why they exist. People like to be scared by things out of the ordinary. But we can only be scared within the context of what is familiar; by the juxtaposition of what we know and what we don't know. A roller coaster ride is only scary because we know the height of the creaking scaffold, the speed at which the rickety, flimsy little car is hurtling your fragile body through space, and the imagined splat of hitting the ground after brakes fail and the car plunges earthward.

Stephen King's Map of Maine

click for bigger image

Likewise, Stephen King's fictional Castle Rock, Maine - first introduced in The Dead Zone (1979) and a number of subsequent stories - feels known as his characters make their way through this small New England town. King is second to none when it comes to creating a powerful sense of place that is as real to us as newsreel footage of New York's Times Square. But the hairs on the back of our neck rise because of his mastery of something else: slipping something bizarre within the normalcy of those known contexts. Lost in his prose, we believe Castle Rock could be our home, our neighborhood and so when King introduces that bizarre thing, we feel fear. And fear is the horror writer's takeaway, the prize for reading the story. Anyone who has read King's books can never look at a big dog or a clown or even small New England towns the same way again.

Stephen KingKing says, in Writer's Digest, that there are, "three types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there …"

But known landscapes and these three types of terror are for naught if cardboard cutout characters populate the story. Here, again, experts insist it is imperative to write what you know. Study the people, they say. Notice motivations, imagine their secrets based upon either those they have shared or your own. Imagine those secrets spiraling out of control. King does this. And Joyce Carol Oates succeeds masterfully at this in Jack of Spades. Her protagonist, Andrew J Rush, fears loss of control more than anything in the world. But it wouldn't be credible if she had not already fleshed him out as a person, somebody you and I might know. He is an everyman. Thus, as weird things begin to creep into the story, the impact is more powerful within the carefully constructed context of Andrew, and his familiar, comfortable New Jersey community and family life. The payoff is a bone-chilling scare, or the reason you picked up the book in the first place.

Roller coaster at Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown, PA, courtesy of Magnus Manske
Southwest corner of map of Maine, Stephen King style (notice Castle Rock and other fictional places in green), courtesy of Stephen King's website
Stephen King, courtesy of CyberGhostface

Filed under Books and Authors

Article by Donna Chavez

This "beyond the book article" relates to Jack of Spades. It originally ran in July 2015 and has been updated for the May 2016 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Become a Member

Join BookBrowse today to start discovering exceptional books!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: Red Memory
    Red Memory
    by Tania Branigan
    Tania Branigan's Red Memory is an astounding and often harrowing study of Mao's China. A lead writer...
  • Book Jacket: The Postcard
    The Postcard
    by Anne Berest
    Anne Berest's The Postcard — with an elegant translation from the French by Tina Cover &...
  • Book Jacket
    by Jennifer Saint
    Few cultures in history mastered the art of tragedy quite like the ancient Greeks. And very few ...
  • Book Jacket: Salvage This World
    Salvage This World
    by Michael Farris Smith
    In the near-future universe of Michael Farris Smith's Salvage This World, life-threatening ...

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
The First Conspiracy
by Brad Meltzer & Josh Mensch
A remarkable and previously untold piece of American history—the secret plot to kill George Washington

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Little Italian Hotel
    by Phaedra Patrick

    Sunny, tender and brimming with charm, The Little Italian Hotel explores marriage, identity and reclaiming the present moment.

Win This Book
Win Girlfriend on Mars

30 Copies to Give Away!

A funny and poignant debut novel that skewers billionaire-funded space travel in a love story of interplanetary proportions.



Solve this clue:

Y S M Back A I'll S Y

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.