Monthly Archives: October 2013
Greetings once again, frightful readers. We’ve been going over horror stories all this month, and seeing as how today is All Hallows Eve, it seems fitting to head back to the crypt to unearth one more story. Of course, as I said last week, this is a story that’s a little hard to find. It could be anything- your dog, a bug, even YOU, reader. And no one would ever know until it was too late; for that is the power of today’s entry, one of my all-time favorite horror films- John Carpenter’s The Thing.
A remake of the 1950’s horror film, The Thing From Another World (itself an adaption of John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There), The Thing takes place at an Artic research base, which is suddenly invaded by a stray dog and a pair of Norwegian scientists trying to kill it. The Americans kill the scientists and take in the dog, then travel to the Norwegian base. There, they find a ruined building, and a horrific, two-headed human corpse, along with a long hollowed out block of ice. They realize the Norwegian scientists unearthed something in the ice, which is made readily apparent when the new dog mutates into a horrific creature. They subdue it, but realize the alien creature can perfectly adapt into another being, and even a cell can make a perfect replica. The men slowly devolve into paranoia, as they realize that the creature may be posing as one of them, and must be prevented from infecting the rest of the world.
What Writers Can Learn: Setup, Suspense, Paranoia, Unhappy Resolution
While much of what makes The Thing a success is it’s special effects, which are gruesome and yet amazing to behold given the limitations of the time, that same success is equally due to the film’s excellent setup. Placing the film in the Artic gives us a sparse, empty environment with no connection to the world at large. As such, when the Thing begins its attack, we know that no help is coming, and even if it did, it probably wouldn’t reach our heroes in time. Therefore, it is up to our small band of men to contain and eradicate the Thing before it can return to sleep, or infect the civilized world. However, there is one thing that is preventing them from doing so- each other.
Remember, the Thing is capable of perfectly imitating any living being, including humans. Therefore, the men are highly suspicious and paranoid of each other, heightened by lack of sleep. This means that even the slightest hint of an impersonation is met with open hostility- MacReady, the main character, is left outside in the cold when a torn jacket with his name is found. When they attempt to perform a blood test to check for the Thing, the blood samples are destroyed, leading to suspicion of all those with access to the med lab. One man is even shot and killed because of the rampant paranoia without showing any signs of infection (he is later proved to be fully human). And since the audience has no idea which, if any, of the men are infected, we feel that same fear and paranoia, which heightens our fear, and our reactions when the Thing does reveal itself.
Still, the movie wisely avoids any chance for a sequel (and as proved by the 2011 prequel, no additional story is required) with its ending. Here, we have a rather nihilistic conclusion that still manages to keep our questions and paranoia going. With the destruction of the Thing, the base, and the majority of the crew, we are left with MacReady and fellow survivor Childs sitting in the ruins of the base. They cannot prove that either of them is not infected, but it is a moot point, since without shelter, the freezing temperatures will kill them before any rescue team arrives. Therefore they sit facing each other, taking their last drinks, as the film ends. It is a dark and chilling ending, and leaves many questions unanswered. But regardless of whether or not the Thing still exists, it is frightening to believe that these two men will be rewarded for saving the world by freezing to death. Of course, the viewer will also wonder if they are even still men, and whether a rescue team would unleash a greater horror by saving them.
The Thing has received many adaptions over the years, but minus the afore-mentioned prequel, it still stands as a sci-fi tale with Hitchcock level suspense. Even without the effects, the idea of men cut off from civilization and facing an evil that they cannot see is more than enough to drive the story. Writers can easily take the suspense and paranoia and its effects for various other stories, such as thrillers, adventure, and obviously straight horror. But perhaps the ending offers the greatest lesson. In too many stories, major problems are resolved with a forced happy ending. This serves as a reminder that, just like in life, characters can do everything right, save the day, and still die as a result. But the fact that MacReady and the others accept that, helps makes this ending even more memorable, and even more chilling.
Well, that’s the last coffin for this year. I hope you’ve enjoyed our trip around the graveyard, and don’t be afraid to pick up any of the stories I’ve mentioned (either the original or this version of The Thing are excellent films, though the suspense and effects drive each differently). And remember, tomorrow is the start of the Lightrider Giveaway contest, so be sure to use the Lightrider Facebook page to enter. Happy Halloween!
First off, I want to thank everyone who worked on the Clark Library Author Meet and Greet. It was great to make some new fans and talk with a lot of like-minded authors. Second, I want to announce the first Lightrider Holiday Giveaway! It’s very simple folks- just use the Rafflecopter link for the instructions, and you are automatically entered for a chance to win a signed copy of Lightrider, along with a full set of beautiful character bookmarks done by Derrick Fish. So please, head over to my Facebook page, click on the giveaway link, and good luck to everyone! The contest will begin on Nov. 1st, and run through the month until Thanksgiving.
Good evening, slashers and murderesses. As promised, we’re going to end this frightening promo month with some childhood stories to sleep to. So let’s begin with Cinderella selling her soul to go the ball, the cannibal Seven Dwarves, and the deadly kiss of Sleeping Beauty. Oh, not what you expected? I guess I neglected to mention how these stories aren’t from Mother Goose, but rather the world of Grimm Fairy Tales.
Created by David Wohl and published by Zenescope, Grimm Fairy Tales is a horror comic series focusing on classic fairy tales. The tales are contained by an immortal woman named Sela, who leaves her tome at the feet of people in trouble. The stories contained are gruesome, but moralistic tales that reflect the reader’s situation, and show them the possible consequences, forcing them to answer serious moral questions. However, this can often be twisted, as Sela’s adversary, named Belinda, also carries the tales, but uses them to inspire violence and misunderstand the morals.
What Writers Can Learn: Story Roots, Making Morals Work, Effective Twists and Reimagining
Grimm Tales isn’t a truly new concept, though Zenescope has effectively branched it out into similar stories (Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland). In truth, these horror comics are actually much closer to the original stories then people would imagine. While Disney has colored in many classic tales, fairy tales are oral folklore, which the Brothers Grimm collected from the German countryside. Life was hard for these peoples, and the tales were not designed to encourage children to dream of castles, magic, and princes that would save them. They were designed to teach children morality, usually by showing them frightening consequences of failing to do so. For example, in the original Cinderella, the tale ends with blackbirds plucking out the evil stepsisters’ eyes, The Little Mermaid loses her prince to another man and dies, and Beauty and the Beast adds two evil sisters whose jealousy turns them to stone. Grimm Tales returns those consequences with horrifying results, but as proof of what research of a popular story can inspire an author to do.
Even the moralistic tendencies, which might seem hokey in other hands, are given biting reality here. For example, Jack and the Beanstalk is mirrored by the tale of a small time drug dealer, obsessed with getting his family the best, despite the growing risk. The classic Jack is a similar man, constantly climbing the beanstalk for wealth he doesn’t need, until the giant catches him. He managed to chop down the beanstalk, but the descending giant then falls on Jack’s house, killing his wife and child. Sleeping Beauty is another frightening moral- in this tale, a boy with an unrequited crush on a bad girl using him as a mule, sees a humble stable boy awaken Sleeping Beauty with his kiss of true love. But his love goes unanswered, which due to the curse in this version, causes him to die and Sleeping Beauty to return to sleep, with no man daring to ever awaken her again. The ends are effective twists on our perceptions of the story and painfully clear examples of the morals the stories try to convey. While not subtle, the horrifying way in which they are presented, along with the real world mirror story, slam everything home and remain long after the reader has closed the book. And not every story has a happy ending- characters either ignore the moral, or are given Belinda’s darker tales; even the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears ends with the reminder that not every gets to enjoy a second chance, which makes the tales and the morals hit even harder, which any writer should try to imply with their moralistic tales.
Grimm Fairy Tales might not appeal to many beyond horror fans, but it brings many factors that writers shouldn’t ignore. At its core, it manages to take a concept that is centuries old and make it fresh and exciting, by expanding on its roots, which can be essential for a writer telling a familiar story. And while the gore and pinup girl covers help sell the books, they still come with a lesson that registers. Any story that has a moral cannot simply stand on a soapbox and shout it out. Morals need to be presented in a way that is either subtle, or without being preachy. While Grimm Tales might not be subtle, it is never preachy, and delivers each moral with the impact of a knife to the stomach.
Well, that’s the final crypt for Halloween this year. It’s been a fun time but… wait, what’s this? Looks like there might be one more crypt left, kiddies. Can’t say I’m surprised; after all, what’s inside it can look like anything it wants too….
Better get your flamethrowers ready for next week.
Welcome back, as we pop open another coffin, and peer inside for some more ghoulish writings. Today, our work takes us into the dark world of Lovecraft, MA, and the haunted Locke family estate, in the world of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s graphic series, Locke and Key.
Note: This review will only focus on the first four volumes of LAK, as I haven’t not yet finished the series.
Locke and Key is the story of the Locke family (mother Nina, and her three children, Tyler, Kinsey, and Boyd). After the gruesome murder of their father, the family moves to their ancestral home of Keyhouse in the town of Lovecraft. There, the children slowly uncover the dark secrets of their house and their father’s past, as they discover magical keys scattered throughout the house. Each key holds a special power (separating a spirit from its body, erasing memories, controlling shadows, and switching genders). But the children are also hunted by a boy named Zach and a creature called the Dodge, which both seek the house’s greatest secrets- The Omega Key, and the Black Door, which combined will release all the demons of hell.
What Writers Can Learn: Character Building/Drama, Myth-building, Mystery
Locke and Key might be based in magic and supernatural forces, but its greatest strength is its strong characters. The Locke family is a group of people that manages to grab sympathy and disgust from the readers. Nina is a self-pitying alcoholic, still mourning the death of her husband, which has damaged her relationship with her children. There is an especially dramatic scene where Nina finds a key that can repair damaged objects, and attempts to use it on her husband’s ashes. The resulting failure causes a further rift between her children and herself, as the readers both pity her and are disgusted by her inability to move on from her grief. But ironically, that grief has had both a negative and positive impact on her children. While all three still suffer from their father’s murder (Tyler feels guilt over their last conversation, Kinsey cannot forget the fear she felt while hiding from the murderer, and Bode is simply too young to fully grasp the growing rifts in his family), it also causes them to bond. When Bode proves the power of the keys to his siblings, they are quick to work together to find a solution (albeit with some misuse- Kinsey uses a key to literally remove the emotion of fear, Tyler tries to impress a girl with another), they work to keep the keys safe and protect each other when the Dodge begins to attack. Because of this, we are given glimpses of real family drama mixed in with the supernatural for a more memorable and gripping tale.
Of course, the supernatural element needs to be as strong as the characters, and we are certainly given that with the mystic keys. Not only are the keys’ powers unique (how many stories have a key that can make someone a giant, or make music into an irresistible suggestion), but they are the driving force of the whole story. The children discover the keys one by one around the house, and there is never a pattern or reason to their discovery. For example, the Giant Key is found as part of the floor in one room, while the Animal Key is found in a frozen birdbath. So every story brings the chance of new discovery. But at the same time, the keys unlock more than new powers; they work to unlock more of the puzzle of their origins.
Through their dealings with Zach, The Dodge, their schoolmates, and their exploration of the house, the children learn that their father was part of a group that originally dealt with the keys and was responsible for sealing the door, scattering the keys, and imprisoning the Dodge. So in discovering the keys and dealing with the Dodge, the children are also presented with a rare chance to connect with their father after he has passed on. However, that mystery is made more urgent by the constant threats the keys place on their lives, so this is a mystery that must be solved on pain of death and the end of the world the price of failure.
While LAK might not be an outright horror story, it never shies away from blood and gore in its mysterious tale, without resorting to slasher-level madness. Instead, it brings together family drama and a supernatural drama, linking them so that one simply does not have impact without the other. This makes for a rich story that can demonstrate both genres effectively, appealing to authors that desire tales of the paranormal, or of a family in pain learning to piece things together. It also shows a talent that every writer should try for- creating a story that can weave itself slowly and effectively. A good horror film makes the viewer addicted- needing to watch for the horror and being unable to turn away, no matter how long it takes. Poor horror films, like poor stories, make the horror obvious, with no questions for the viewer expect for when something will pop up. LOK unfurls its dark wings slowly, entrancing us not only with horror, but a family in turmoil and a supernatural mystery to boot.
Next week, the Halloween series comes to end, and to close the crypt, we’ll be reciting a few childhood stories. But these stories removes the sparkle and adds some long removed blood. But until then, children of the night, enjoy the music.
Welcome back to the graveyard, as Points of Light continues our Halloween journey. As promised, this week focuses on the tale of a prom gone to hell, in both written and cinematic form. So, in honor of it being a classic horror tale and experiencing a movie remake, let ‘s open up this week’s entry, Stephen King’s Carrie (because we all knew I’d put a King story in here SOMEWHERE).
Carrie is the story of Carrie White, a teenage girl that suffers humiliation on a daily basis. Her mother is a dangerously devout Christian, which has caused Carrie to grow up as a social outcast. Carrie is mocked by the other girls for her appearance and lack of social cues and know-how. This eventually comes to a head one day in the girl’s locker room, where Carrie has her first period. Unaware of what is happening, Carrie panics, thinking she is bleeding to death. The other girls respond in a brutal hazing incident that is simply too disturbing to repeat here. However, this traumatic event reveals a long dormant talent in Carrie- she is telekinetic, able to move things with her mind, albeit with physical exhaustion. As a result of the incident, the girls involved are punished, with one feeling guilty enough to have her boyfriend take Carrie to the prom. However, the one girl that refuses the punishment (and is subsequently banned from the prom) plans a final humiliation for Carrie, that shatters the girl’s already frail psyche and sets her off on a slaughter-filled spree against everyone that ever wronged her.
What Writers Can Learn: Real-Life Influence, Suspense, Emotion
What truly makes Carrie memorable isn’t just its climatic prom scene, but rather the stark reality behind it. High school is a dog-eat-dog world for everyone, with the weak always getting eaten alive. There is not a soul that never felt isolated or mocked during that time, usually for something they couldn’t control. Carrie White is the embodiment of that; even King describes her as a girl “you just wanted to yell at.” Because of that, we immediately feel sympathy for her, because we remember how it felt to be ridiculed ourselves, and how we fantasized, however briefly, that we could get back at our attackers. And the story ups the ante by not just making the high school girls the tormentors, but Carrie’s own mother. This is a woman so wrapped in her religious mania that she neglected to tell her own daughter about menstruation and locked in a closet for committing ‘the sin of blood’ afterwards. She treats Carrie as a living bomb, waiting for the day her daughter will give into her sin (use her power). Carrie as a character grabs us because while we may not live in her world, we have all been there in some way, and we remember how much it hurts.
Because of that connection, the novel is able to build a unique type of suspense. When Carrie is asked to the prom, it is a catalyst that begins to build Carrie’s confidence. Coupled with her increasing powers, Carrie starts to break away from her mother and become more independent. Because of the established connection, we want her to succeed. But at the same time, Chris, the antagonist, is plotting something horrible for Carrie at prom. In the book, King uses flash forwards to testimony that establishes Carrie’s rampage started at the prom, while the movie simply shows Chris planning. Either way, the reader is praying it fails, as we watch Carrie start to emerge from her shell and actually have fun. Even at her moment of glory, which is when Chris’s revenge happens, we’re still trying to ignore the signs, ignore the horrible fate that we know is coming because we’ve almost become Carrie at that point, seemingly over everything that tormented us. And when the horror finally does happen, and that fantasy is ripped away from Carrie and from us, it makes her into something unique- an angry, revenge filled monster that we are actually cheering for. I can recall even yelling, “YES CARRIE, BURN THEM ALL!” when I watched it. And to make a murderous rampage seem sympathetic and for an audience to cheer for it, shows a level of character and emotion that only a truly skilled writer can pull off.
Carrie is certainly a revenge fantasy, but one that is easily relatable to anyone. It is horror that works because it strikes us at home. Carrie’s experiences are horrible, but there is an element that we have all experienced. It is why readers cheer for her, and yet at the end , we question why we did. The truth is, this is a novel that frightens not only because of its reality, but also because we wonder, if one of us had that kind of frightening power, how would we use it? Would we go as far as Carrie, and would we be right to do so? And finally, just because someone commits an act such as this, is it entirely their fault? In today’s world of school shootings, and strident anti-bullying campaigns, it is a question worth asking.
Next week, we’ll be heading in more supernatural territory, as we unlock the door to a house in Lovecraft, MA. Until then, sleep with the lights on…
First, I wish to apologize for my lack of a post last week. I was the victim of a heavy work schedule, and simply couldn’t find the time to write anything for you. However, I will hopefully be making up for it this week with the start of a special series. With October, and therefore, Halloween just over the horizon, I could see no better time to discuss writing in the horror genre. So for the next four weeks, I will be using Points of Light to cite examples of horror stories that stand as strong examples of the written craft, through not only books, but also movies and any other source that provides a strong example. And to begin, let’s dive into an oft overlooked, but surprisingly strong example of well-told horror- John Carpenter’s The Fog.
The Fog is the story of Antonio Bay, a California town celebrating it’s centennial. However, the town priest has recently uncovered a dark secret concerning the town’s founders. Apparently, the money to build the town came from the stolen funds of a wealthy man looking to build a leper colony near the town; the founders used a false beacon to crash the wealthy man’s ship onto the cliffs, and plundered the gold to build the town. That very night, a fog starts rolling over the bay, bringing with it the remains of the ship, and it’s undead crew, looking for revenge against the town that was built on their deaths.
What Writers Can Learn: Suspense, Dual Natures, Using the Reader’s Imagination
One of the great devices of this film is how well it takes a simple object (fog) and makes it frightening and mysterious. Carpenter first has a stranger series of events occur across the town (electrical devices turning on and off in the middle of the night, the priest’s discovery, and a mysterious plank of wood from the doomed ship), which tell the viewer that strange things are coming. By doing so, he builds the fog up before it even appears on screen. This is especially effective, since many horror stories use the idea of being lost in the fog with a monster, but here, it is used as the monster (since it holds the undead inside it). The idea is now revitalized, along with the basic human fear of being lost in the fog in a desperate situation. The very sight of that white blanket of mist drifting into town is enough to send the people into a panic, and sends tingles up the viewer’s spine because we all know the horrors contained inside, but not what they will do next. When the main characters run in fear, we can feel their terror, and become addicted to knowing what has to happen next.
The monsters inside the fog are also examples of horror done well. While in today’s horror field, much is done with CGI and prosthetics, the ghosts inside the fog are given little to no definition. They are deptetcied as dark, red-eyed beings, always keeping to the shadows. The viewer is never given a clear vision of their faces, though hints are given when one is briefly shown as green and rotting. As such, the viewer has to make their own concept of what the creatures look like after years underwater, and therefore, everyone’s fear is much more personal and terrifying to them. This is a vital part of good horror storytelling- finding a way to make the fear universal, which is done here by making it personal.
Finally, the film also gives the ghosts a surprising dual nature. Remember, these are ghosts of innocent, sick people, who wanted to live apart from others and were unjustly murdered. Their desire for revenge is sympathic, and while we are frightened of them, it is hard to not understand their motivations. It raises the question of whether or not the townspeople should suffer for the actions of their ancestors. Indeed, the ghosts only ‘leave’ when the last living descendant of their murderers is sacrificed. Did the townspeople deserve to be punished for honoring murderers all these years? Or should they be exempt? It’s a question that nags at the viewer after the film, and for a good while after that.
While John Carpenter has made more famous films, The Fog is one of the best constructed ghost stories in his, and any catalogue (though the modern remake should be avoided at all costs). The suspense is built up slowly, but surely, with much of the visuals left to the personal imagination of the viewer. This is a film that could easily be translated into a book for those same reasons. Good horror and suspense comes from properly building the mood and atmosphere, and then giving readers something that is personally frightening for them, because it comes from their own minds. And asking some questions about guilt and punishment along the way never hurts. In fact, next week’s entry will delve into punishment even more, with a glance at one of the most frightening proms ever… ‘till next time, boils and ghouls.