Breaking Through To What Really Scares You

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what actually frightens people. Honestly, I’ve never been in a conversation with someone about ghosts or evil covens where they’ve told me they both BELIEVE those things exist AND are frightened by them. It’s usually a much more casual…’yeah, those things are possible’ kind of comment. Maybe I’ve not gotten out enough – if you have a good story where you got spooked for real, I’d love to hear it. For my part, I wanted to reproduce in a book I’m writing now the feelings in my life when I was actually frightened or shaken to my core. Since I don’t actually buy off on a lot of the supernatural stuff, it has to be much more grounded and personal to get to me. So I thought about September 11th.

All too often, people I interact with are too young to remember what it felt like when the New York towers fell in 2001. I couldn’t relate to the Pentagon fire or the Pennsylvania field; but I absolutely remember being in those towers  when I was a kid – I had family up there. I watched them smoke and fall and remember feeling entirely helpless. File that one away, it’s important.

I’ve also said before in these posts that George Orwell’s 1984 is, in my opinion, the most frightening book ever written. No goblins or possessions. No vampires. Not even a car crash. Just people being terrible to each other in a way I could believe – an awful momentum those people allowed in their society that left them with a nightmare like ‘ROOM 101’ at the ‘Ministry Of Love’ where they torture you to the point of breaking your entire personality. They turn your own children against you. They get in your head with endless propaganda. It left that society helpless. File that away, also important.

Every year, Chapman University conducts a survey of what frightens Americans the most. Check this out:

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Helplessness is staring you in the face here.

We can’t control huge, man-eating machines like government corruption where compassionless bureaucrats take everything you own or terrorist attacks where a smiling neighbor who always waved at you suddenly sprays bullets into a shopping mall. Look at number three – imagine yourself feeble and alone, your body failing and laying in diarrhea, without any money to pay for food or electricity. Shivers, man. That’s terrible! You’d be helpless.

Ignore some of the political stuff here, the things CNN or Fox told you to worry about; and there are some truly foundational horrors listed here, things that get to the heart of what scares us. We treasure stability and control and predictability. We expect the rules to be fair and unchanging, so we can continue to captain our own lives. Yet as suddenly as a phone call with a diagnosis, you can be the one staring desperately at someone you dearly love beside a hospital bed straining to understand why this doctor is contradicting the last one and why nothing is working. As they waste away. That’s us, man. That’s humans. We can’t control that; and yet we demand to. We’re helpless; and we don’t want to be.

I’m not saying I don’t have anything supernatural in the book I’m writing. Of course I do, I get bored with plain-vanilla things. But my aim is to ask you to concede only one fantastic element and let the implications fall out and shatter from there. So far, I’m having a blast. Along the way, I’m pondering what scares us for real. Things like the ones here on Chapman’s list.

I believe in the end, anybody stringing together words for profit or fun like a lot of us would be more proud of what you’d done with a horror story if you try to break new ground. Use something grounded or contextual with just a hint of the supernatural. Make me love the folks you’ve breathed life into, then tear them apart with something terrible.

That’s the gig, right?

 

Kill The Dream Sequence. No, Seriously. Kill It.

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If you haven’t watched Dead Of Summer yet, I don’t really care either way. It’s meh, mostly. Yet I was in a binge this weekend to get caught up and noticed something that was particularly relevant for me right now. I’m writing a horror novel – about 40k words in to a targeted 90k, and so I’m particularly concerned with how to get someone on the edge of their butt, chomping their tongue in anticipation and as nervous as I can make them. While this show is fun, it’s not scary in even the smallest sense, though I think it tries to be. Maybe we should have a look at why it fails to see how I can succeed. It’s what I thought, at least.

Go read reviews from the second Avengers movie. One thing you’ll find is a lot of people annoyed with the weird dream sequences. Should you peruse what the masses had to say overall about Batman Versus Superman, you’ll find similar irritation with dream sequences. Let’s not get into whether you dug those movies, okay? I get how divisive that is right now – it’s been Marvel Versus DC since the seventies, nothing to see here. The point I’m making is about the overuse of this narrative technique and how it practically forces an audience to disengage. In movies, it’s probably an excuse to just show some cool visuals. In execution though, it’s a signal to me I’m good to go get a refill on my Coke Icee. Know what I mean?

Anyway, back to Dead Of Summer. Here’s the marketing blurb:

“Set in 1989, school is out for the summer, and a sun-drenched season of firsts beckons the counselors at Camp Stillwater, a seemingly idyllic Midwestern summer camp, including first loves, first kisses—and first kills. Stillwater’s dark, ancient mythology awakens, and what was supposed to be a summer of fun soon turns into one of unforgettable scares and evil at every turn.”

If you read that, you agree they want to be scary, right? Their narrative structure follows the same style as Lost, involving individual character flashbacks to flesh out each main player. Honestly, that part works for me, though the flashbacks they showed had little to do with decisions characters were making in the storyline. It came off cheaper than it did in Lost for that reason. However – and this is my overall point here – about a gajillion times, we are shown visions of a dark, mysterious man from the 19th century who’s supposedly tied in with the mysterious goings-on at the camp. I mean over and over and over, we see this guy and some blood streaming off something, or eclipses or bugs or murders or whatever…and EVERY SINGLE TIME you know it’s going to be a vision with no consequences. You can’t possibly get scared because even though somebody gets pushed into a grave or dunked underwater or whatever – I can’t even remember because I checked out during so many of those – that they’re just going to wake up and be okay. It’s foreboding but not much more.

Let’s set aside movies like Inception, which broke ground with this concept and the Freddy Krueger films (the good ones, let’s not discuss the Dream Warriors, shall we?) which staked their premises on the dream sequence. The difference with stories like those is they established consequences – you could die in those dreams. How boring would The Matrix have been if you couldn’t die while inside?

I run into this problem of consequences a lot, actually. If you’re a science fiction guy, you might think a lot about the vast distances in space and how slow moving any real-life story would be…months to get anywhere and hours to talk to each other. You might go the road of setting up avatars or virtual reality-style storylines to account for that; but honestly, you’re still looking at ridiculous lag times for the signals. If you hand-wave all of that and just say ‘tachyons’ or ‘entanglement’ to get the science-snobs off your back, you’ll be looking at this problem of consequences just like I am. If your guy is actually laying in a booth in Utah or wherever directing the action, how are there any stakes for him?

Right. So there have to be consequences and some kind of danger that’s entirely relatable. If you watch Game Of Thrones or The Walking Dead enough, you start to think at any moment this freaking show is going to kill off one of your favorite characters. Mercilessly. Back in the nineties, Joe Quesada who was then Editor-In-Chief at Marvel Comics (pre-Disney) established a “dead is dead” rule for killing off characters to restore some kind of drama given the prevalence of resurrections. Fantastic concept, actually, though he drifted wide off the mark over his tenure.

That’s what I wanted to say, guys. Dream sequences and visions are tired and boring and are basically tickets for your audience to disconnect. Don’t do that. Avoid resurrections too, while you’re at it. Kill a major character early on just for giggles, to challenge yourself, and to set the bar for your reader that YOU AREN’T PLAYING AROUND…THIS IS SERIOUS!.

Have fun!

 

What A 19th Century Crazy Guy Taught Me About Writing Spooky Stuff

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I want to talk about Guy De Maupassant; but I’ll come back to that in a minute. Stick with me here.

When someone asks me the scariest thing I’ve ever read, they usually expect me to say something from Stephen King. If they’re literary, they may want to hear Henry James. Whatever. Truthfully, 1984 by George Orwell scares the crap out of me more than anything; and I’m not sure how you could top it.

Especially during an American presidential election season, anybody can relate to that desolate feeling of trying to talk to someone so caught up in their beliefs and convictions that the eyes have glazed over, they’re not listening at all, and confirmation bias squeezes out any facts running contrary to what they want to believe. It’s horrifying how mobs of people can get caught up in the momentum of anything, and how quickly and viciously they’ll turn on dissenters. We should all just take a breath, right? When I read 1984, I think of how likely a world it describes, how people have behaved much like that. I can see how easily we’d slip into such a knot, and how impossible it would be to break from it once you’re inside. Shivers, man. Just shivers. That guy worked magic. It’s why we still quote that book so often.

You may have or heard the short story by Guy De Maupassant called The Necklace where a really poor lady borrows an expensive necklace and loses it, works her butt off and ruins her life trying to pay for a replacement, only to find after years and destroyed health that it was an imitation anyway. Not sure why that story hit the mainstream and gets taught in schools so much when the same author put out so much skull-slamming treasure! He went nuts, probably because of syphilis but kept writing while dipping into his madness.

“Every other time I come home, I see my double. I open my door, and I see him sitting in my armchair.”

Guy said that to his friend, Paul Bourget. It wasn’t fiction, though this exact thing happens in a story of his called He? Guy wound up slitting his own throat unsuccessfully and lived in an asylum for another 19 months. Here’s something he tossed out in a letter to his friend, Dr. Henry Cazalis:

“A saline fermentation has taken place in my brain, and every night my brain runs out through my nose and mouth in a sticky paste. This is imminent death and I am mad…”

Sheesh. Anyway, I consider one of his very short stories one of the most perfect scary pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. In the same manner as why 1984 spooks me so much, it is realistic and possible and shoots jolts of terror in ways you don’t normally see with no real strain on your suspension of disbelief. It could happen to you. That’s the basis of real horror, isn’t it? The story is called “Two Friends“. To read it yourself shouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes. Go ahead, I’m about to spoil it for you.

When my kids were very young, there was one particular July 4th night we were all sleeping; and I was awaken by a very loud CLAP sound downstairs. It sounded like two pieces of ceramic tile smacking together. Thinking something had fallen, but suspicious maybe of a break-in, I went groggily downstairs with my wife hovering at the top of the stairway with the ‘9’ and the ‘1’ already dialed, touching the ‘1’ again just in case she needed it.

I saw a massive spider-web in the dim light on the far wall, too massive to believe. It wasn’t there when we went to bed, right? Anyway, I was deep into the living room downstairs and exposed, gently extending a finger when I realized it wasn’t a web at all…it was the drywall cracking from a bullet hole. Someone outside had fired a gun into my home. Wasn’t that kind of neighborhood. This was the suburbs, for pete’s sake! Lawless teenage vandals, devil worshippers, whatever…I had to bolt for cover just not knowing who or what or where. The silence was maddening thereafter, with the thought of how a slightly different angle of the barrel, and I’d have awaken to a paralyzed or bleeding son or daughter!

The scariest things I’ve read fall into the same kind of chill:

  1. Mundane, maybe even pleasant events jarringly turn a different and terrible direction
  2. I can relate and sympathize with the character thrown into this surprise
  3. None of the decisions the character makes seem out of line with what I’d have done (nothing breaks my fright faster than an author breaking this rule)
  4. There’s a sudden realization that there isn’t a way out

In Two Friends, Maupassant presents two pleasant country guys who just love fishing. Even though there’s a war on in the countryside, they work through a military friend to get out of the village and to the shore of their favorite lake. Prussian troops show up, present the option of revealing the password back into the village or die, then shoot them dead where they stood when they won’t do it.

“The water spurted up, bubbled, swirled round, then grew calm again, with little waves rippling across to break against the bank. There was just a small amount of blood discoloring the surface.”

Guy broke the rules of literature, man! He killed off the point of view characters and shifted focus to people that had just been introduced. There’s a silly joke by the Prussian commander at the end about fish. It’s creepy and cold and absolutely believable. Honestly, the part of the story where the Prussians show up makes me feel exactly like I did tracing my finger on cracked drywall. That was a drunk neighbor barbecuing, by the way.

Anyway, go read more of Maupassant. The scary stories. They’re public domain and awesome. Let me know what you think!

Let’s Pick Apart Great Writing To See Why It Works

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“The most terrifying conclusion Stephen King has ever written” Not my words. The inside jacket says that; and it’s a huge claim.

This is no book review. If you’re planning to read Stephen King’s Revival and spoilers bother you, skip this one. My purpose isn’t to tease you with it or give you enough zap to want to read it. I’m going to dissect this little guy like a Roswell alien to see…when it does work really well…why it works. I could have picked perfect works for this exercise, like Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, Frank Herbert’s Dune, or even King’s 11/22/63. One reason is I read this recently. The other is it isn’t perfect; and in particular breaks down like a clunker at one point. Just like almost everything King puts out, when he’s bad, he stinks. When he’s good, he’s freaking brilliant and outshines almost everybody else putting words together. Let’s see why that is, so we can distill some basic principles that would be of value to someone crafting their own stories. Cool?

The story follows Jamie Morton, a boy growing up in 1960s Maine who first encounters a Methodist minister, Charles Jacobs when Jamie is six and the reverend’s young family moves in. Jacobs apparently heals Jamie’s brother using snake-oil sounding hoo-doo he describes as relating to “secret electricity”, a practice that forms the backbone of the whole book. The reverend’s family is killed in a terrible accident, sending him into a bitter tailspin; and over the decades, fate swings these two together again and again in  occasional intersections. Jamie falls in almost-love, then out; and he gets first hooked on heroin, then cured of it by Jacobs. There’s rock and roll and carnivals and fantastic characters along the way. Things finally culminate with Jacobs bringing Jamie in for his grand experiment: bringing someone back from the dead to finally know where his family has gone…to at last know what happens after you die.

1- The opening is chatty and conversational, though immediately alludes to Jacobs being somehow entangled in horrors.

2- Within a few pages, we’re given a host of mundane details we can relate to like comic books, a kid’s imagination, crappy family gifts, toy army men

Straight away, he’s trying to hook you…to make you interested within a page or two before most of us would put it down.  He invented neither foreshadowing nor characterization; but he excels at getting you inside his people’s heads with slice-of-life details. That’s my point. Read it and see how he uses specifics like the name of a TV show his mom is watching to lend flavor and engagement to what he’s telling you…little details we can relate to. A majority of the reviews for this book gush about how much they enjoyed the first part of this book when he’s doing this. In fact, he almost always does this. I had to put down Under The Dome because he was vomiting details and overdoing this trick.

3- Much like the accident it describes, chapter three hits hard and fast with horrifying descriptions of a brutal car accident

Following a brief opening with more relaxed details like: “Three miles away, a farmer named George Barton – a lifelong bachelor known in town as Lonesome George  – pulled out of his driveway with a potato digger attached to the back of his Ford F-100 pickup.” It goes on to describe him as “a good neighbor, a member of the school board, and a deacon of our church”. Then a paragraph later, there’s a scorpion sting that stuck with me for a couple of months after I finished this book. Seriously, it’s brutal how the accident is described. It was fast and brutal. It drew me in, horrified me, scared the crap out of me because of how likely it could happen with nothing supernatural. Incredibly well written. This was brilliant. If you’re trying to scare a reader, striking quickly like this with graphic brutality on characters we’ve been made to care about and relate to is a genius move. It drove everything else that happened. Just genius.

4- The narrative winds and builds, resonating with the title quite well, leading the reader on to believe these ‘secret electricity’ experiments we keep hearing about are going to bring the family back, just in more of a “Monkey’s Paw” style probably. I was thinking it the whole book.

Except when he at last gets to the end, that’s not really what he does. A really brilliant use of the title and narration to make you think you’ve got one ending coming when you don’t.

5- Jacobs brings back a corpse to ask about the afterlife, to know where his family is. Clunk! We’re shown the monster.

To previous generations, it was expected of a horror writer to show the monster. Read Lovecraft – he was very much into that. Abraham Merritt was an incredibly successful sci-fi writer back in the 1920s and 1930s; and he spent pages in lush detail on his visuals. Understanding preferences in fiction are subjective, I can still confidently tell you the prevailing aesthetic in the 21st century is we’re much more frightened when it’s in our heads and the imagination runs wild. Troll Netflix horror flicks and have a look at how many have grainy, security footage-style or lost footage-style preambles for three fourths of the movie before you finally get to the money shot, which is even then only a glimpse of some lady crawling backwards on the ceiling or whatever. King broke the rule with this one; and he has a habit sometimes of cracking the horrifying dread he’s conjured in us like he did this time by describing the afterlife as a place of torment like something from Dante’s Inferno, with massive basalt columns and wide-eyed people led in chains by ant-things to punishment.

On one hand, I’m impressed that a horror genius like Stephen King has picked the most frightening thing about being a human, not knowing what happens after you die, and built a book around it. That’s the mind of a guy who knows what he’s doing. Point in his column. On the other…’ant things’? When he got to this point, the atmosphere and pacing were incredible, driving the quick page turns and breathless wait for what happens next…excellent wordcraft. It’s just for me, when he showed his answer, I disengaged. It isn’t just me, many of the reviews make similar comments without the details of why they felt that way.

Anyway, that last principle is what made me think writing this article made sense. A quote from Great Gatsby came to mind, which is saying practically the same thing:

“No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart”