Elements of Horror

I’m in the process of publishing my second short story, most likely in a month’s time. It’s a horror story, titled At Horizon’s End. Horror is a genre I feel more comfortable with, primarily, I think, because it allows me to play
with darker and grimmer settings and endings, which I love. Now, to be clear, I don’t write the gory, splatter type of horror. I’m happier writing the psychological type, the subtler one.

Which made me wonder, what does a horror story need to have to be effective? Of course what follows is my take on it, as I understand it and the way I write it. It doesn’t mean it’s the only way.

First of all an effective horror story needs a strong setting. Regardless if your story takes place in a room, a town, on another planet, on a dark spaceship, over frozen forests and mountain ranges, setting can be your best ally, because it creates mood and sets the tone. Take Stephen King’s IT for instance. It’s the simplest setting one can get; a town with a sewer system. But with something sinister in those sewers. When I was reading the story a few years ago, and I was at any point where the heroes were walking or cycling on the streets, I kept thinking that something may pop out of one of the sewers. Even where there was no mention of said sewers at a particular scene. Why? Because King’s descriptions of the sewer in that early scene (I’m trying to avoid any spoilers, which is why I’m being so vague) made me keep it at the back of my head, and made me expect something nasty to come out of there at any moment.

Depending on the story and a writer’s style, a horror story needs to play with some keywords that will draw the reader in. I can’t give you specific examples, since it depends on each writer’s style and how each story evolves.
But when the writer transports you to a dark room with dripping sounds all around, it adds a little something when said writer describes the sound of dragging feet or the sound of creaking floorboards as the house settles along
its beams. The choice of words (dragging and creaking in this example) have a greater impact than writing that someone walked upstairs and sounds came from the house. The choice of words in the latter example is poor.

One of my favourite things to use in horror stories include characters and situations who are contrasting the general idea of the story. For instance, if my story involves Death (personified) at some point , then I will most likely choose a child for a main character (as is the case of At Horizon’s End). Why? Because on one hand we have a child’s carefreeness, which also represents life, and on the other we have the grimness and the frailty of life.
In my mind, it can’t get more contrasting than that. When I was brainstorming for my first novel, The Darkening, the idea of pitting a survivor of an apocalyptic event against the shadow he could cast at any given moment (which is one of the most natural things to occur, since our world is full of light and we rely so much on our sight) was extremely intriguing. For the past year, I’ve been struggling with a horror short story (that keeps getting bigger and bigger, by the way) that takes a married couple, who at first glance love each other. As the story goes on, the events that unfold strip away their humanity and love, while at the same time exposing their secrets and their view of each other, by forcing each of the two to do something horrible in order to carry on living. Selfless love acts versus survival.

Of course all the above are pointless unless the writer uses a villain who is a million times stronger than the hero. That villain could be the world, a phenomenon, something out of this world, or, if you aim for the gory/slasher type of horror story, perhaps another human who is wicked (make sure to give them wants and fears – you want the villain to appear like a real person after all). And all this because the writer wants to evoke fear. No unbeatable villain, no fear. No fear, no horror.

When it comes to pacing, the writer needs to be crafty. In my understanding, there needs to be an exponential escalation of negative effects from beginning to climax. If your story deals with only one negative event, then
you need to build up to that moment, and when it comes, hit the reader as fast as possible, as hard as possible. For example, if your whole story revolves around a character’s choice about whether or not he/she should stand up to Death and challenge him to obtain something very important, then play with the anticipation your pacing can create. Build it up throughout the story, perhaps by having the hero questioning the effectiveness of such a choice, then when the moment comes, have your character make that choice. From there on, take your reader on a roller coaster unlike any other. If it’s a series of bad things happening, make sure each is worse or scarier than the previous, then hit the reader with the worst, the epitome of nastiness, in one swift go. Anticipation depends on pacing. Much like the roller coaster I mentioned earlier, you could start your story slowly, and leave the reader constantly wondering what will happen next, always hinting at the worst (foreshadowing). The writer can also allow the reader to get a glimpse of a positive outcome for the hero, but it has to be snatched away for the negative climax to have the greatest impact. Another way to do it is to hint on how terrible the outcome of the given choice will be, and at the same time, force the hero into a corner where that choice is a one-way road. The writer can also allow the reader to settle at a state of relative peace by having the hero overcoming minor negative effects, in order to amplify the negative outcome of the climax.

If the writer uses anticipation properly, then it creates the next important thing for a horror story: dread. The writer can allow a constant underlying question of “what’s going to happen to the hero next? What will the cost to
the hero’s soul be?” My understanding of dread is that it usually works best if the writer sprinkles a little mystery in the horror recipe. If it’s a given that the hero will die at the end of the story, and the reader knows this, dread is vital to make the story appealing. In the short story I’ve been struggling with for so long, it is an undisputed fact that the heroes will not come out at the end of the story the same way they walked into it. The reader knows this. The reader also knows that things will get better, if the heroes do one thing, which will be catastrophic for the other. So the question becomes, “who’s going to come out with the least damage and how will they do it? What will they have sacrificed in the process? What will the villain do to keep them from succeeding?” The reader knows something the characters don’t (or simply refuse to acknowledge) and that builds dread, which adds to the anticipation.

All the above (dread, anticipation, fear) are visceral emotions the writer needs to play with and ultimately, exploit and amplify. But the writer needs strong descriptions for this, which takes us back to setting.

Finally, the writer could also use tragedy to his/her advantage, and/or drama (but drama only in its modern Greek sense, which means unpleasant effect or unwanted situation, which is different from what ancient Greeks meant when they used the term, and vastly different from what nowadays passes for drama in the western world). If the writer aims for a sense of tragedy, then it’s important to bind it with character flaws and poor choices, and perhaps make use of strong contrasts, like I mentioned earlier. All this should add to the empathy the reader develops for the hero throughout the story, which also allows readers to “experience” what the heroes feel.

So, what are your favourite horror stories?

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Writing Prompt 43

 

Jimmy glanced behind him and gnawed on his lip. The shouting was distant, but getting closer. “Are you going to will the wall go away by staring at it or something? It’s a dead-end. We’re trapped. Come on.”

Ramona reached out, grabbed him, and shushed him. She traced the mortar between the bricks with her finger and closed her eyes.

Jimmy tapped her on the shoulder. “Hate to have to disturb you, weird lady, but they’re coming.” He glanced over his shoulder at the mouth of the alley. By the sound of it, a small riot had broken out not far from them and was headed their way.

He put his hand on her shoulder to shake her, but she slapped his hand without sparing him a look. “If you don’t want to end up encased in the wall, or land in an off-world volcano, or at the bottom of a quicksilver ocean, I suggest you stop interrupting me.”

Jimmy moaned and wrung his hands together, his gaze oscillating between Ramona and the other end of the alley. Weird lady will get me killed, he thought. “Come on, come on. They’re getting -”

“There,” she said. She brought out a small metallic bundle of spheres and a tiny crystal hammer, then clinked a few of the spheres with the hammer. The spheres rang, floated to the wall, and the mortar glowed. “Take my hand and don’t let go.” She cupped his jaw and squeezed. “You don’t want to let go, understand?”

He nodded awkwardly, the way she held on to his face. Really weird lady.

She patted his cheek. “Good boy.”

The bricks vanished, and a bright light engulfed them. Something pulled at Jimmy – not only physically, but mentally – a force unlike anything he had ever felt before. At some point, Ramona’s hand burrowed into his, warm, strong, soft, radiating confidence.

“Trust me,” she said over a harrowing whistling sound, and winked at him.

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Readjusting a writing routine

For the past few weeks, certain life events (all of them unforeseen, as life tends to make them, but not all of them bad), have made me unable to write. No, I’m not going through a writer’s block. I want to write and edit and revise my work, and I have material to work on, but, alas, someone decided that each day should only have 24 hours. I don’t know who it was, but I don’t like that person. I used to like them, but not at the moment. And, to make things harder, I also got a job. For the record, I’m not a lazy bugger, but as it’s the case with most jobs, it takes up a great part of my day. One third of it, to be exact. However, it’s a nice place and, get this, there’s another writer there. Another one from the tribe!

And yet, it adds to a problem that has been going on for the past few weeks, one that leaves me with either not enough time to spare to write or not enough energy for it. Everything that has been going on for the past month or so has messed up my writing routine (which I took great care to protect, but when family health issues arise, what can you do?). So I’m trying to come up with a new routine, at least until my placement is over (which will be around February 2018 – unless they fire me before that *shudder*).

I’m sure most of you have faced similar life changing events, so how did you cope? Did it take you long? Was the transition to a new writing routine easy? Did you have a routine in the first place? What steps did you take to be productive (writing-wise) again?

I have a few ideas, and once I put them into practice I may write a post about them, but until then feel free to share your take on this. I’d really like to see how other people deal with this issue.

I’m hopeful this changes in my life will not affect this blog. But it may happen, since I usually draft these posts a few days in advance and go over them as much as I can each day, before I publish them. If it does happen, know it’ll only be temporary, that you can reach me through social media, or through the contact form (at the top).

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The Man Behind The Bar reviewed by Viking Reviews

The reviewer of Viking Reviews was kind enough to review The Man Behind The Bar on their blog, and it has been a stellar one. Quite frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever said anything as encouraging and positive for my own work. Getting positive feedback from people I’ve never met before in my life is quite overwhelming, and I’m grateful for it. I’m very happy this story has accumulated so much positive feedback, even though it’s not one of my familiar genres. It motivates me for the future.

Okay, enough self-worship for one day. You can read the review here. If you’re looking for something new to read and don’t know if it’s going to be up to your expectations, have a look around the books reviewed by Viking Reviews. Lots of titles there, as well as other things that may be interested in. You may also want to keep them under consideration for your work.

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Writing Prompt 42

Are you bored with promotions yet? Yes? No? Well, here’s another one. The Man Behind The Bar is free worldwide for today only (May 28). You can get a copy here. If you live in the UK, try here, if in Germany go here. Here’s the link for Canada and Australia. Check other regional Amazon shops for your free copies. Oh, and I’d love it if you could leave a review.

Anyway, on to writing prompt 42

Thunder cracked in the distance. “You sure it’s the right grave?” Burt asked. I rattled and slapped the flashlight, and muttered a few curses. “Eleventh from the path,” I said over the whistling wind and the pattering of the rain. The flashlight came to life, and a yellow ribbon cut through the darkness. I pointed the light beam on the tombstone. The rain washed the name away. two New ones replaced it. They were our names.


Originally, the above prompt was bigger (more like a vignette, though probably too small even for it), but since I’ve decided to publish these prompts on Pinterest and had to use background graphics for them for more people to, hopefully, benefit from them, available space became an issue. Anyway, for the readers of this blog, and those interested in the slightly longer version, here’s the original piece.


The flash illuminated Burt’s face staring at me, water running in rivulets on it. “You sure it’s the right one?” Moment’s later, thunder cracked somewhere in the distance.
Roger slapped his flashlight, rattled it, and emitted a few silent curses.
I nodded. Stupid me; he couldn’t see me in this pitch black. “Eleventh headstones from the path,” I said over the whistling wind.
Roger’s flashlight came to life, and a yellow ribbon cut through the darkness. “Finally.”
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Burt said. “Let the dead rest, my pop used to say.”
“Doesn’t surprise me one bit. You’re as senile and superstitious as he was. In his best days.”
Roger whimpered loud enough for me and Burt to hear. His light beam was shaking. He pointed a finger at the tombstone.
The letters on it faded away, as if dissolved by the water. New letters formed and replaced the old ones.
They were our names.

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Through Stranger Eyes to the first beta readers

Through Stranger Eyes is now at the hands of the first betas. I’m really curious what mistakes each will find and how they’ll deal with the questionnaire I sent them. I’m 100% sure that some of the mistakes will be the same ones I spotted in other people’s work in the past. It’s amazing how hard it is to identify simple things in our own work, but once we get someone else’s work, boom! The mistake is there, glaring and annoying. I should clarify here, that when I say mistake, I mean anything that draws the reader away from being immersed in the story. There are no mistakes in creative work.

It’s always strange when others read someone else’s work. As long as the book stays with the writer, it’s protected. Not only that, but the writer is also protected. It’s almost like the two form a symbiotic bond. They’re both barricaded in a safe zone the other creates. The moment someone else reads the material, both writer and book are exposed and vulnerable. And if the writer isn’t used to receiving criticism… It’s our baby, our creation, our vision.

I don’t know how established writers feel about this, if they’re worried of the quality of their work, even with the team of professionals and fans behind them to pick up on continuity issues, spelling mistakes, plot holes etc. I imagine they feel the same. Perhaps their lack of confidence is short-lived, since they have an established reader base and a brand name to back them up. If I ever reach that point in my career, I’ll let you know.

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Call for betas for a cyberpunk novel

I believe I have done all the edits I could think of on Through Stranger Eyes, my current WIP. It’s time for others to have a look at it and identify all the mistakes I have failed to spot. No doubt they’re plenty and will keep me busy for a while. But for me to improve the manuscript, I need you.

So, I’m asking for beta readers willing to take a plunge into my dark futuristic world, into the fears and hopes of Dr Rick Stensladnt (my main character). To try to figure out with him why his life took such a bad turn all of the sudden, who’s behind everything.

Through Stranger Eyes is a 132k word cyberpunk mystery/suspense about Dr Rick Stenslandt who, despite the fact he augments people with advanced cybernetic implants (as is the norm in his world), he refuses to have even the simplest implant in him. Though a purist at heart, he will have to stray from his convictions when an accident deprives him of his sight, and is forced to have an ocular implant. Things take a strange turn for him after the operation, as Rick begins remembering the deaths of influential people, whom he has never met before, deaths that have taken place years earlier. Driven to find out what is happening to him and why, he will risk losing everything that matter in his life; his social status, his sanity, his family, his life.

You may ask, what is Cyberpunk?

“Trying to define Cyberpunk is a difficult task. In short, however, Cyberpunk refers to both a culture and a genre.

Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that features advanced science and technology in an urban, dystopian future. On one side you have powerful mega-corporations and private security forces, and on the other you have the dark and gritty underworld of illegal trade, gangs, drugs, and vice. In between all of this is politics, corruption, and social upheaval.

High tech. Low life.” (Definition taken from https://www.neondystopia.com/what-is-cyberpunk/).

Though not a prerequisite, often noir style of narration is employed (again, not all the times). I have tried using this kind of narrative.

If this still doesn’t shine any light (understandable, since the world is gritty and dark), consider the film Blade Runner as the epitome of what a cyberpunk world might look like. That’s one side of the cyberpunk spectrum. The Matrix is also cyberpunk, though with a lot of other subgenres thrown in. If you haven’t watched either of these films, and you’re into anime, then Ghost in the Shell and Akira are the first ones that come to mind (if you know more, please let me know. I’m not into anime, but I really like cyberpunk). In terms of books, William Gibson’s, Neuromancer, and my favourite, Richard K. Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels, particularly Altered Carbon. If that also doesn’t help, have a look at my pinterest board, designed specifically for this book.

So if any of you have read or watched any of the above and liked them, you’ll feel right at home (hopefully). If not, but you are willing to read an early work (or as early as any work can be after more than a year of editing and fine tuning), if you don’t mind answering long questionnaires about the book, if you are the kind of reader who understands that the only way to help a writer and his/her work is by being brutally honest and point out as many mistakes as you find (and the occasional praise for the things you liked), then please let me know. And if you’re concerned whether or not you’ll hand it back in time, I usually give two months minimum for the readers, because, well, life happens for all of us. After all, I’m not the speediest reader and I’m known to have taken a long time to return a manuscript (hi Yoann!). So, if you want to help, don’t worry about time. We can always extend the time frame.

A few people – people whose opinion I trust, and whose help I value – have already offered to help me. I’m eternally grateful to each and every one of them. Some aren’t writers, just readers. Others are writers (more skilful than I am) who write in different genres, yet their comments is almost always accurate. Some have a keen eye for details and are more editing-oriented, others see the whole picture and comment based on that. Whatever your skill level, whether you write or not, if you want to help me, please leave a comment or let me know in any other way (use email, twitter, facebook, pinterest etc). Those of you who have already agreed obviously don’t have to do it again, but if I’ve forgotten to contact you personally (I apologise, but lots of things are happening, some health-related issues with close family members), please message me and let me know of your availability.

Please be advised, that Through Stranger Eyes has some adult themes and imagery, as well as mild foul language (in other words, it conforms to most genre standards). Just a heads up 🙂

Thank you all very much!

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