hi, readers! Here’s a craft essay I’ve been mulling over for quite some time. Its topic: how do we wreak terror in realms where manifest gods walk among heroes enshrined by fate and glory? What abyssal breed could stir horror in the heart of a paladin who has faced a thousand demons, and never faltered?
I suspect I’ve got you overthinking it already. The answer is just a scarier demon.
Before we travel further or I lull you with one too many jokes–a topic we’ll soon cover!–a few disclaimers. I love horror now, but it was a long road past my own denial about that. I’ve yet to read many keystone works of the genre and I by no means claim skill at writing it. I believe only that I’ve grown enough insight to merit sharing.
So, consider this the start of our conversation.
Trigger warnings for the essay: second person writing, second person PoV, gore, sudden animal death, mentions of decay and lethal radiation sickness, human emotions about death
Trigger warnings for the short horror story included below the asterisks: blood, dead animals, viscera, possible hallucinations/breakdown of reality, suicide attempt
First, I want to clarify what I mean when I say horror. If you don’t agree with my meaning, you probably won’t agree with my ideas. When I say horror, I don’t mean “images that cause discomfort” or “places that give you a faint sense of unease,” both of which serve well as tools of my horror but aren’t its core, and I definitely don’t mean “a shocking moment that really makes you think™.”
I mean creative work that seeks to fill its audience with visceral, abject, unrelenting terror. That’s my horror.
At night, or rather early morning on the 26th of April this year of 2021, I was blessed by a nightmare that rose quite suddenly from a previously banal and noxious dream. It serves us well for a lead-in–not least because it woke me up in a fit of terror despite violating one key piece of advice I’ll offer if I write the later essay mentioned at the end of this one.
That will, of course, be based on how well this one does–5800 words is already a LOT to write for no guaranteed pay!
I’ll revise that violation and some of the dream’s other details for effect. The difference between living a nightmare and describing it is entirely in being there, after all. I’ll mention these changes to you if you ask me privately. Let’s not spoil the effect where we mustn’t, hm? I do need to ask something of you: try not to think about what I’m about to present. Focus solely on feeling it. Now, I shall tell you of the terror I witnessed in my dream.
Or perhaps it was a vision.
A horseback ride between two noblewoman in late Medieval European dresses. Both pale. One blond, one auburn-haired. The tightness around their eyes leaves no doubt about their dislike for each other. Cordial, but nothing more. They’ve come together to seek an augury from an old hedge-witch.
They leave their reasons unspoken.
Grey skies keep watch over a day just as devoid of wind and woodland calls as of other travelers. A fogless, soundless path strewn by dead leaves that stretches away up the slope beneath gnarled trees. The lines their clutching branches carve against the sky, the way their trunks bleed into each other at the edges of sight.
Fog would be a mercy on a day like this.
The riders pass out from the trees and reach the witch’s hut. A deflowered knoll rising above the trees like the lymph-node swell of a plague victim. Their horses leave meandering trails of hoof-prints in dead grey-brown dust broken by fewer than a hundred strands of bone-yellow grass. Racks hold drying herbs. Animal carcasses await their skinning. There: the half-sphere of vine-strewn clay at the center. Fitful smoke rises from the aperture at its apex up to the grey skies.
The skies are too close. The auburn-haired woman watches them with darting eyes and a thundering heart. She looks to her peer. She would speak if not for the dry look on the younger woman’s face.
A scrawny tumble of tattoed limbs emerges from the hut’s black mouth. Quick grey eyes under a tangle of leaf-strewn brown hair. The noblewomen are pale. The witch, where her natural flesh can still be found beneath furs, linens, and tangled charms, looks alien to the kiss of the sun.
The auburn-haired woman clears her throat. Swings down from her restive horse. She approaches the figure that leans towards her like an eager crow. Still there is no wind, no bird’s call, no stag’s foot upon a branch. The shiftless clouds loom. She holds forth the icon of eleven points woven together from tendrils crafted of a metal so pale and reflective that when she turns it the wrong way, it becomes a hollow mass of shapes channeling the grey skies.
She flinches rigid. Flicks her black eyes to meet the greys of the witch, who meets her gaze in kind.
The sky gives no answer. The auburn-haired woman breathes again while the witch accepts the icon with her right hand. Then, with her left, the witch beckons. The visitor looks to her companion. The golden-haired woman steps forward to offer a weave of clattering beads and overlapping thorn-sigils on dried brown strands. The witch takes it. She closes her eyes, exposing sharpened teeth behind discolored lips with hissing breaths through flaring nostrils. The beads clatter under probing nails. They are as loud as rattling doors in the stillness.
The grey eyes drift open. The witch returns the beads. A slow shake of the head. A finger thrust forth as an accusing arc towards the long dagger in a gold-plated scabbard on the auburn-haired woman’s hip. She looks to her companion. A roll of green eyes. The jerk of a golden-haired head. The auburn-haired woman swallows. Shaking fingers find and unfasten the scabbard. She clutches it to her breast for long breaths. Then, once more shuffling forward, she passes it to the hedge-witch.
The witch whips her arm forward with a sudden grimace. The auburn-haired woman jerks back, panting for breath to ease her shock. But the witch has the dagger already. Her bony fingers wrap its hilt and tug. Then, with a grunt, they yank.
Metal rasps with a grainy crackling.
Much of the steel that emerges has gone to rust under a red-brown spattering all over its point and upper edges. Only a few centimeters of sheen and two surviving letters hint at fine sharpness and an engraving that once meant something.
And the witch smiles. Nods. Sheathing the red-rusted dagger, she turns to walk around her hut. Her guests follow.
The clay swell of the hut twists slowly with their steps. Rough black stones boil into sight out of the silent dust among the off-angle mazework of the witch’s possessions. A moldered, moss-speckled heap so old that its surface, once a flat platform, has become as knobbly as any natural hillock. The jagged notchwork of a stairwell bears them to its peak, where a long crystal trough in the shape of a crescent moon balances on bronze spike-supports gone to green from their patina.
In the red-pink waters of its belly, poured halfway to its top, bob a hundred lumpen curves and nodulous protrusions: gizzard, intestine, spine, brain, and heart.
The auburn-haired woman errs. She looks back towards the hut. Her booted feet stand half a meter higher than its roof, and the bone-white smoke trickling upward from the eight-pointed star pierced as a hollow at its apex. From this height she sees over and past the witch’s clutter to the pathway.
This pinnacle was never visible from that path.
Unsteady feet carry her around to face the witch. Yet the witch does not face her. Bony fingers prop a cast-iron rack up on its folding joints next to the crystal trough. A chance angle of one wrist knocks the fourth leg into the crescent trough. Its ripples go pale with a warped refraction of the grey skies. The witch grunts, beckoning the auburn-haired woman and motioning for the other to stand near the decaying stair.
Twine-wrapped tubes of off-white linen hung in steel bands: the witch and the auburn-haired woman work these into two bundles of seven tubes around an inner three, and hang one bundle above the other from the cast-iron rack. Knocks or harder presses burst tangy-scented powder from small seams. When all is done, the witch sets the pale metal icon of eleven tendrils atop the lower bundle.
Atop the upper, she places the rusted dagger in its golden scabbard.
By some artifice in the snag of her long fingernails against the bundles, she incites them to burn. They catch with a dread frothing hiss. Sparks spray. Heady eye-watering smoke belches out–sickly pinks, pale reds, dark purple all violent against the dim hues of the encroaching wilderness and the dead knoll. The witch motions again, bidding the auburn-haired woman to stand back.
She breathes deep of the smoke. Then, a single sharper inhalation. She hunches forward with her back to the visitors. She stills, staring. Staring into the white-hot flaring from the lower bundle. Staring into the whorls of incense at the icon of pale tendrils. Slowly, she straightens. The auburn-haired woman looks to her blond peer. She looks to the forsaken dagger’s hilt, slivers of golden guard and red-finished wood seen through coursing smog.
Whirling and a mad scramble bring the hedge-witch to the crescent trough. She seizes a length of intestine and a small human heart. Pink-red fluids take waves from the thrash of her hands and overflow onto the black stones. Back to the cast-iron, back to the burning linen tubes. The intestine, she casts upon the lower bundle and the icon. Wet and cold though it is, it catches immediately with the evil pop and hiss of boiling flesh.
The small heart, she holds atop the scabbard of the forsaken dagger with her left palm while she rips free its blade with her right, and plunges the rusted steel into the moistened flesh to rest there with it atop the scabbard. For long breathes she watches the oily tints now rising with the rest of the discolored smoke. There are two more sounds against the stillness now: the lap of water and the hollow resonance of the dead flesh it carries when it thumps against the walls of the trough.
Another pivot by the witch. Another stride towards the crystal. She glances to the auburn-haired woman. Words rise in the noblewoman’s throat. Yet they are caught against the vise on her heart, a terrible chill quiver in her gullet that she does not dare to name. The moment passes. The witch looks back to her instruments of augury and the stirring water that catches the grey skies above.
Once more, she twitches and becomes still as death. Shuddering breaths fall through her widening maw. Her nails grate against the trough’s edges, and with the grating rhythm of a stone coffin’s lid, she cranes her neck towards the auburn-haired woman. A wordless horror dilates her grey eyes. She heaves out a soft keening whimper that trails away into nothing. Her lips move, violet and wide, shaping speech to swift to see.
No sound emerges but the squelch of cheeks and gums, the clicks and clucks of a wet, reddish tongue.
She shudders. She quakes. Her head wrenches to stare up at the grey skies. Faster, harsher, she gnashes her mouth. Past her atop the steel cageworks containing the tubes nearly burned out, the intestine hisses its last and becomes a reeking length of surrogate charcoal. The small heart collapses slowly in a veil of fire upon the forsaken dagger.
The blond-haired woman spins and bolts down the decaying stair with a wordless cry. Her peer stands transfixed. She does not move at the sound of a neighing steed nor the thunder of hooves towards the path down the hill. In the last agony of terror, the witch sticks her tongue out, eyes white and enormous beneath her brow hair. She dashes her teeth down upon it.
There is no witch. There are no hoofbeats against the stillness and there is no red dress fluttering nor mane of blond hair coursing on the wind of flight. The auburn-haired woman grits her teeth and plunges down the black stone stair. Her breath comes at a gallop of its own. Her head snaps back and forth through, her eyes sift the animal carcasses that hang so still and the drying herbs and the space where her own horse should stand.
There is no horse. There are no hoofprints on the path down the knoll into the leafless trees. She turns, numb to everything save the empty stillness beyond words within her, and returns to the platform. Her boots thump without echoing on the notches of the decaying stair. She crests it. Stands still to watch the last of the tubes burn down. Ragged black scraps hang smoking on steel cagework.
There is no dagger. There is no icon.
Thumps and a trickle of reddish-pink fluid from the crystal trough. It patters on the moss and on the dark stones. The trough is so very, very full of flesh and omens. Every little ripple sends some of its liquid over the sides. One faltering step. Now another. Sight catches fast on a strange muddle of shapes bobbing with the rest: slivers of white in five rows spread like a web, half-seen between reddened strands glistening with the wetness of the trough.
Tremors fill every limb with horrid chill sickness. And still, deep beneath them, she can find no motion to break the stillness. She contorts up and down as if to leap, or fly away, and with each contortion her spine hunches and her hands claw up to cover her eyes. She presses her fingers into the soft flesh around the sockets. Tearing. Hot dampness…
… but not enough. She tries to speak. A single word. The shifts of her flesh and jaw thunder in her ears. No breath joins them.
And the auburn-haired woman looks up.
I’m guessing I’ve gotten some mixed reactions from all of you, dear readers. Some of you are quaking in terror and you want to kill me for doing this to you. Some of are quaking in terror and want to kiss me for it. And some of you, possibly many of you, are dying for me to answer one question:
What the fuck was any of that, and why is it supposed to be scary?
Horror, or at least my horror is an exceptionally difficult genre to write precisely because it’s meant to evoke such a simple, universal reaction. It’s a lot easier to write an effective story when I can count it as a win as long as my readers experience emotions strong enough that they want to unpack and understand them. When I want everyone to have the same response despite being completely different people, I’m coming up against a hard limitation of storytelling: the fact that nothing we create can be totally universal.
I actually quite like the above hybrid of dream journal/fantasy horror. And that’s what it turned into: only half of the content there, if that, was present in the original dream. Which half?
Oh, come on, I’m not telling you that.
As I wrote this story I developed certain ideas about what underlying explanations it has, if any. I’m keeping those ideas to myself because if I give them to you, you’ll start thinking about it as a worldbuilding exercise, and not the terrifying unexplainable disappearance of two(?) people.
Sadly, I am writing a craft essay. Much as I’m loathe to do so, I have to let some of the raw fear factor go. So let’s break down the reason why I love this scenario so much as a horror story, how it reflects on the western fantasy canon’s obsession with rules of the world, and why that makes it the perfect example to work from in the rest of this essay.
Depending on how much attention you pay to subtextual storytelling, you might find that there are very few clear rules here, or you might feel that I actually establish too many! The assumptions we take for granted matter for fantasy worldbuilding in general. The very idea that there are, inevitably, nobles of some kind who wear the same kinds of clothes and follow similar customs to nobles from Earth history says something.
The fact that the characters of this story never say a word can imply numerous things. Without telling you the reason I have in mind–and I did have a reason in mind–I give the impression that there’s a code of conduct here, or perhaps it would be more truthful to call it a tacit understanding.
You’ll often hear that uncertainty is scary, which is true, and that therefore horror should never establish rules, which is absolutely not. Here’s the first, and to me the foremost, reason that writing fantasy horror can be so hard: you must establish what constitutes “normal” for your setting because nearly all effective horror starts out by disrupting normalcy.
Before we talk about why that matters for fantasy in particular, let’s dig in a little: why is that? Remember what I wrote earlier. “The difference between living a nightmare and describing it is entirely in being there.” To truly terrify an audience, a creator has to fill them with the emotional conviction that they’re connected to the reality the horror represents. I repeat, the emotional conviction.
We’re dealing with the difference between logos and mythos here. That is, the rational, logic-and-science based explanation of the world and its workings versus the emotional and–for those who believe in spirits–spiritual truth. This doesn’t just mean folklore, religion, and overt superstition.
There may be–probably are!–scientific explanations for why food tastes better to you when someone you love gave it to you, or why it reassures me to think of my daily routine as a way to control probability and causality to prevent mishaps, but we don’t need to know those explanations to feel these things as true. People aren’t machines. None of us are truly equipped to deal with the universe as pure statistics, physics, and scientific principles, nor do I personally think we should want to be. Our sense of emotional truth, not our ability to make up symbols quantifying the preexisting reality of the universe, is what makes sapient life uniquely beautiful.
At least, to me. My mythos and your mythos will by definition be different.
The experience of Earth audience members is not, objectively, the same as those of the fantasy characters they grow attached to. That doesn’t matter. They feel kinship, an emotional resonance, with these characters, and come to feel that in some way what happens to the characters is happening to them.
This goes beyond horror. The best reason for the trope of a hero from humble beginnings is that the hero’s early chapters usually involve a daily routine with familiar faces and a familiar hometown. Audience members see themselves in this. Even if they predominantly feel annoyance at the hero for taking a stable life with trustworthy companions for granted, that still works, because it means they’ve begun to project themselves into the alternate reality and let their very real thoughts and emotions be affected by its fiction.
So, we need to establish a sense of the fantasy world’s normal before we can pull the rug out. The above story works so well despite minimal setup precisely because it relies on fantasy trappings most readers will already be familiar with. Plotting noblewomen and strange witches living in remote places, yes, you’ve seen those before.
The impossible-space shrine platform with a crystal trough full of organs that clearly ought to be rotting, but aren’t, I’m guessing feels a lot less familiar.
And yes, we know witches. Witches are supposed to summon, commune, and consort with supernatural powers. Here’s a very simple underlying assumption to many horror stories about witches that saps nearly all of their punch for me: the powers the witch contacts will only hurt “normal” people, unless she fails to meet some condition set upon her.
For those of you who don’t already know, I am a witch. I’m obviously not going to feel frightened much if a story sends me the message, “You’re fine, you’re the lady who does the summoning.” I’ll likely be offended at the idea that just because I invoke non-traditional supernatural beings that I’m into child murder and sacrificing the souls of the innocent, but I certainly won’t be afraid.
In my own life, I live in quiet, constant fear that I’ll summon something beyond my power to deal with.
Now, you don’t need to believe in witchcraft to understand the point I’m making: for me, the best horror works with a two-pronged approach of creating a certain threat combined with uncertainty about when, why, and how it will threaten the audience. There’s a fine balance here. You need at least a few details to give your audience something to focus on. But sooner or later, you’ll need to add rules if you want to keep them working together.
This not universally a death-knell for horror! You can write extremely rules-based horror, but I’m still working on cracking that nut, so we’re not going to try to deal with it here. Just to prove my point: literally nothing presented in HBO’s Chernobyl is unexplained. The explanations actually make it more horrifying.
Let’s come back to logos and mythos. Most horror relies on mythos because horror is entirely about affecting emotional truth. We know that Michael Myers is an invented character when we start watching Halloween. We know he’s not real. And yet, when we see that empty shot of the ground where he was lying just seconds ago, seemingly dead, and we hear his breathing overlaid on shots of all the places he’s been, we feel that he’s real, and now that he’s left these places behind, he could be anywhere. He could be right here with us in our own homes.
Chernobyl is a different beast altogether. Chernobyl is what I have to call logos horror. Everything it depicts is, if not perfectly true to historical events, then true enough to real-world nuclear science and how it affects human anatomy. It’s horrifying not because it presents us a mythos that influences our own, but because it takes one of the most nightmarish examples of the real world’s logos overwhelming our mythos. It’s horrifying because it can happen to you, and it has happened to real people just like you who live in the very same world that you do.
There’s no uncertainty at all.
Think of you. All your thoughts, memories, feelings. You have a sense of yourself as more than the flesh you inhabit. That’s your mythos. To this, Chernobyl presents the remorseless truth that a single second’s gazing into the white void of a ruptured reactor core will unmake you. Not because it hates you, not because it transcends the laws of your reality, but simply because it embodies the portion of that reality’s laws to which your existence is forever secondary.
You’re a person, right? You’re such a complex thing! Aren’t you owed a big, grandiose death? Doesn’t reality have to respond to the bigness of you, to acknowledge that you matter even if the acknowledgement is only in the effort taken to end you?
Of course it doesn’t. You’ll walk for a while, sure. You’ll even recover for a day. But then the lie ends, and you’ll rot to death, and none of your hopes, dreams, and high-minded feelings will change the fact that a barrage of microscopic particles killed you in a way you were utterly, totally, scientifically-proven helpless to prevent or recover from.
The certainty of your own empty annihilation. I think logos horror must be rare because it would take staggering cruelty to inflict it on people where it doesn’t already exist–if one can pull it off, that is.
Anyway, if I figure out how to express the ways to make that agonizing, dissolute sense of rules that matter more than people work for horror in a fictive setting, I’ll give you a full essay on that. For now, we’re back to fantasy horror.
Fantasy horror presents you with a limitless range of options. For the same reason, you have a limitless number of loops you may end up tying yourself into. Let’s consider the above story: the witch doesn’t use any explicit magic system, though fellow practitioners and occult scholars will doubtless note her obsession with ritual objects like the dagger and say, “Oh, she’s using sympathetic magic!”
Well, more accurately, that’s what she tries to do. Does it work? Does the witch gain any insight from her augury before her impossibly abrupt end? We don’t know, and I do mean we because I haven’t answered these questions for myself and I don’t intend to. I want this piece to remain a horror story for me, not a mystery.
I’m not saying that mysteries and horror stories can’t go hand in hand. However, while fear is an essential part of the mix in many mysteries, the key distinction between a horror and a mystery is that a good mystery has an answer. The best horror is unanswerable. I say this because it takes precious little effort to drop a bunch of suggestive clues together when you’re not working towards a clear answer that forces them to be in sync.
Anyone who’s ever played with their environment as a child has constructed mysteries from countless bits and pieces. There’s a joy to this, a sense of curiosity and exploring the world. It’s much the same feeling that carries us through fantasy. If you put a mystery and a horror in a story with any sort of satisfying conclusion, one must sooner or later overtake the other. Either the mystery has an answer, allowing us to focus on the fulfillment of knowing the truth and thus putting a screen between our emotions and the horror we experienced to reach it, or the horror comes to its full potential and places us in terror that has no answer, rendering the mystery empty.
I’m speaking about worldbuilding, of course, and how it sooner or later has to fall apart where it brushes up against your setting’s horror. If you can’t shut off the lore-smithing, your horror will be slashed to ribbons instead. Do the noblewomen in the above piece worship gods? Do those gods exist, and if so, are they given to interceding? Could the witch have alliances with spirits or other entities that would allow her to defend herself?
If I as a horror writer did my job correctly, these questions did not matter and didn’t even occur to you until I mentioned them. And now that I’ve mentioned them, it’s hard for you to stop thinking about them, isn’t it? Suddenly the icon of pale tendrils becomes an answerable question. If you just seek the right allies, do the right research, gain the right power, you can beat it! And just like that, you’ve ceased being scared. You’re not scrambling to survive. You’re motivated to face a challenge.
If you want to write fantasy horror, you must learn to anchor yourself in tone, in refusing not only to answer annoying questions but even to acknowledge that they exist, that they could exist, until your audience become convinced that every answer they thought they had was merely the scrabbling frenzy of an animal mind seeking to outrun its terror.
Consider Chernobyl. There’s no answer to ionizing radiation on that level. Even the best conceivable hazmat suit buys only a brief chance at survival. Radiation does not justify itself. It does not discuss, does not speak, does not suffer demands for explanation. It simply is, and all that cannot bear its touch must unravel before it.
To answer a challenge, even by claiming that it’s issued in futility, implies at least enough equality that the answer needs to be given. Few people fear that which they feel equal to.
The moment a reader commits to “winning” your horror, they already have. Their mythos has shifted. From this point onward they can always construct an internal reality where nothing in your story can scare them.
This doesn’t mean that you never give more details, never elaborate, never include some mystery. It means you only include these things when you’re certain that the readers will wish they didn’t have the answers–when the answer, itself, is another layer of horror.
Let’s consider a very simple premise. You’re walking through a valley. The sun shines, birds chirp, and clouds soar on the blue sky. A sprightly fawn bounds out of a bush, flicks its ears at you, and leaps out into the flowering meadows ahead.
Then the fawn vanishes in an explosion. Its carcass, gashes torn along its flanks, tumbles out of the smoke and dirty debris cloud to skid along the ground in two separate pieces. Now alert, you see a rusted metal rod half-hidden behind a tree’s low-hanging leaves. You brush them aside and read, “DANGER! MINES!”
Well, that’s traumatic and deeply unsettling, but based on the sign’s position you soon realize you’re outside the field. Your fear ebbs. You make a mental note of the area to report to the authorities and turn around. Too late, human pattern recognition kicks in. You see the telltale shape of another sign… fifty yards back the way you just came.
Now you’re in a cold sweat, because you know some of the mines around here are still active. You know there is a field. Did you just, by pure blind luck, stumble along a safe path, or are all the mines back that way inert? Do you risk it?
Then you remember you’re a modern person with a smart phone. You heave a sigh of relief, reach into your pocket, and as you start to dial you adjust your footing for what you’re sure will be a long wait.
Mines are fucking evil. With that said, this little vignette illustrates what I mean by layers of horror. The initial exploding fawn may give us some. Though, let’s be frank, people can be pretty messed up, and I’m probably not the only one who imagined a version of that scene which is darkly hilarious. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though! Tonal dissonance can heighten the emotional power of horror by leaving an audience unprepared for things to get serious. Good comic relief characters tend to play this role.
Bad ones just prevent the horror from feeling serious at all, of course.
Either way, the sign establishing an explanation for the explosion serves to level out the mood. Our itinerant smartphone-haver becomes a person with an answer. While realizing they’re already trapped in the field is another bad shock and puts them in clear danger, they have a solution–until they don’t.
So here’s the uncertainty: when the authorities show up, will they be able to do anything about a mine that’s already stepped on? Is this just a noisy trigger on some dead explosives? How much pressure has to be kept on the mine to stop it from going off? Will it sooner or later detonate anyway?
The sum of all these questions: a thinking, feeling human being’s raw, unresolvable terror that they are about to die.
The answers given open up new uncertainties and enlarge the threat rather than promising ways to deal with it. That’s the key. And, that brings us to the closing subtopic of this essay: why that can make writing fantasy horror so, so damn hard.
If you’re writing a fantasy setting purely for horror, that’s one thing. You’ll still need to establish cultures, characters, history, and maybe a few arcane points of interest as part of the opening tone-setting, but you’re free to confine your later answers purely to horror if that’s what you want.
But if you’re like me, then you may already have a setting with a considerable amount of depth. You want to infuse it with more horror to after the fact. Good news! You can! Bad news. This means vastly more work on your part. More work than I can delve into in detail in an essay that’s already run so long, but fortunately this was never intended to be a one-and-done affair.
On Canno the above scenario might involve enchanted crystals triggered to burst by exposure to the life-signs of certain species. One mage, having studied the science of optics enough to cast spells based on its principles–Cannoan magic is thaumaturgy, that is, magic as a science–might be able to deal with it simply by creating pure-light pulses that mark out the spell-mines as hollow spaces because their own enchantments block the incoming light.
Another might have a wonderful knowledge of anatomy but know nothing letting them detect the mines directly, forcing them to invent a complicated series of arcane tests until they can reverse-engineer a way to use their anatomical magic to sense the mines–or, alter their own life-signs to walk through the field with no further effort!
And you might think this would prevent the whole scenario from being horrifying since it has clear solutions, except: the spell-mines are triggered by certain species, remember? If they were put here as a threat to humans, there’s no reason they’d go off in response to random wildlife. The group sent into this area might not find out about the spell-mines until their sole mage triggers one and becomes a heap of charred flesh and dismembered limbs.
Now it’s just a bunch of mundane folk stranded in a death zone. No way to send for help, no one left who can deal with this problem.
But maybe someone in the group has a strong connection with a demon, who might or might not have the powers needed to clear the field, or one of them has the potential to be a divine cleric… you get the idea.
The thing is, none of that matters if you sell the story well enough. The key trick to writing fantasy horror is, in the end, the same as any other kind: not that your characters aren’t tough or capable, but that the terrors they face behave in ways that defy every assumption your characters rely on to know that they’re tough and capable.
As to what that means specifically, well… we’ll get into that in another craft essay if this one does well enough.