Welcome back to the graveyard. But today, we’re venturing past the cemetery gates into someplace new. A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of a mind. A world between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his imagination. Today, we examine the television classic that is Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.
Rod Serling grew up as a fan of pulp magazines. But as an adult, he was fascinated by stories about heavier topics- society, racism, government, and human nature itself. Prior to the creation of Zone, Serling was already a major television name, having written several dramas, but also criticizing the limitations TV forced upon him (such as not being to discuss current events in his political drama The Arena). Eventually, Serling was able to produce a special called The Time Element, which dealt with a man’s dreams of time travel becoming real. The special was well received, and Serling was able to work out a deal with CBS to create an anthology series. Serling himself hosted each episode, and wrote or adapted most of the stories, which in general were science fiction, but usually functioned on commentary on humanity and the issues of the day. Fueled by tales from sci-fi writers like Ray Bradbury, George Mattheson, and Charles Beaumont, the original series ran for five seasons, producing 156 episodes, two reboot series, and a film.
What Writers Can Learn- Short Story Writing, Commentary
One of the reasons Twilight Zone has lasted for so long is that it is an endless generator of stories. Being an anthology, each episode brought in new characters, new plots and new devolpments. While this obviously made the writers constantly seek out new material, it also meant they weren’t bound by any rules concerning continuity, and could do what they wanted each week. Not only did this allow for them to bring various authors to contribute, it also let them take different scenarios and topics, all while staying under the umbrella of the Zone. So for writers interested in short stories, this is of one of TV’s best examples of different stories that can function as a whole- the basis of all great short story collections.
However, the stories themselves are what gives Twilight Zone its staying power. As mentioned before, Serling had an interest in stories with consequences, and his show proved that even the best sci-fi and horror could still have a point for readers. There are countless examples of Serling’s messages, but for the sake of brevity, we will list a few classics.
- The Monsters are on Maple Street- a neighborhood block is cut off from the town, and as the power blinks on and off, neighbors accuse and turn on each other. But it is all a plot by aliens, to show how easily humans panic and how simple it will be to divide and conquer.
- It’s a Good Life- a town is terrorized by a monster- a freckle faced eight year old boy, with the power to read minds and force unspeakable horrors onto anyone he chooses.
- One For The Angels- a less then stellar salesman manages to outwit Death, but when another is chosen to take his place, he has to make the sale of a lifetime to take his spot back.
- Death’s Head Revisited- a former SS officer returns to Dachau to recall his ‘glory days.’ But he is tormented and killed by the ghosts of the inmates.
- Four O’Clock- a paranoid man claims to have built a device that will shrink the evil of the world to nothing. But at the chime of the hour, only the man vanishes.
- The Changing of the Guard- an elderly English professor is forced into retirement, and feeling his life had no meaning, decides to kill himself. But he is visited by the spirits of former students, who assure him that his lessons made them into better men.
- He’s Alive- the leader of a small neo-Nazi group is visited by a shadow that shows him how to enthrall a crowd. The leader thinks himself invincible, but he is shot by the police after committing murder- and the familiar, mustached shadow leaves to find another candidate.
There are several more episodes of the original Twilight Zone to look through for inspiration, running the full range of moral science fiction. Those interested in more modern tellings would do well to examine the show’s underrated 1980’s revival (though the late 2000’s revival is generally inferior for fans). Serling’s work can also be seen on the similar minded Night Gallery which focused on horror and fantasy with Serling again acting as host and script contributor. So enter into the Zone but remember the graveyard will still be here next week for one last tale.
Welcome to the graveyard once again. This year was a sad one for horror fans, as we lost one of the genre’s great creative minds- Wes Craven. While he created many diverse films like The Last House on the Left, The Serpent and the Rainbow, The People Under the Stairs, and Shocker, Craven will be remembered most for his horror satire Scream, and his crowning achievement, A Nightmare on Elm Street, the birth film of slasher icon and dream killer, Freddy Krueger. Therefore, today’s entry will pay tribute to one of Craven’s more unique films, which took some chances with his most iconic creation- Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.
Heather Langenkamp, the actress famous as the heroine of the Elm Street series, is dealing with a stalker calling and pretending to be Freddy. But then more and more strange and terrible incidents plague the actress- her husband is killed on the set of a film revealed as a new Elm Street entry, her son begins to act strangely, and say that Freddy is coming after him in is dreams (despite never seeing the films), and earthquakes rock Los Angeles. Eventually, Heather begins to dream of a larger, more terrifying Freddy, and goes to Wes Craven himself. Craven explains that he believes Freddy is a type of demon, which can be captured by storytellers. But ‘Freddy’ has escaped, due to the story being watered down, and is coming after Heather because she portrayed the one person that could stop Freddy. Craven even reveals that his new script, drawn from his dreams, has paralleled the events of the film word for word, and that the only chance to destroy the demon, and save her son, is for Heather to resume her role and defeat ‘Freddy’ one last time.
What Writers Can Learn: Reality vs. Fantasy, ‘Meta’
New Nightmare is regarded by many as a prelude to the Scream series, as both deal with horror films ‘invading’ the real world. However, New Nightmare has many other elements that make it more revenant to fans of Freddy Kreuger. For example, the demon Freddy is supposedly released when the story of Elm St. is watered down or told too many times. Craven himself has often said he dislikes how the series turned Freddy into a more jokey killer and less of a cold blooded killer, so it is easy to view the film as Craven’s small stab at studio interference. Even Freddy’s scarier design is more in line with Craven’s original vision. But on a more serious note, Heather Langenkamp experienced a stalker in real life (ironically, from her sitcom Just the Ten of Us) and actually left the country to escape said stalker. There are also moments that combine elements of both themes- Heather on a talk show being overshadowed (and somewhat exasperated) by the appearance of the jokey Freddy. It gives the film a true ‘meta’ appeal- that it appeals to more then one level of viewer, which makes more enjoyable by those in the know.
However, another great strength of the film is its blending of reality and fantasy. While the films had previously concerned dreams overlapping reality, this one concerns film overlapping reality. As it progresses, we see more elements come into play from the films- there are ‘kills’ that ape deaths from the films, Heather’s hair develops a white streak from the fear in her dreams as her character did, and even lines from the movie begin creeping into Heather’s speech. However, the climatic moment occurs when ‘Freddy’ begins clawing his way up from under the bed. Outside, Heather is arguing over the events with John Saxon, who played her father in the films. As they argue, Heather realizes that Saxon has become his character, and that their surroundings have morphed into the film set. As Saxon quotes his lines to her, ‘Freddy’ pauses in his escape and looks on, as if he is waiting for something. Heather takes a deep breath, and says her lines from the film, which allows ‘Freddy’ to emerge. It is symbolic of both Heather accepting her role, and her gateway into the fantasy realm. It is a trick that writers interested in multiple worlds and in writing good heroes, should take note of. It not only serves to establish a hero, it also firmly establishes the different worlds and makes it clear when we have moved from one to the other. It also serves as the gateway to the final fight, where the hero, having suffered and learned along the way, is finally ready to face down her adversary.
The films mentioned above would serve those interested in Craven’s work, as well as the Scream series. For fans interested in Freddy, Nightmare on Elm St encompasses six films of varying quality (1 and 3 are favorites, while the others are regarded as hit and miss), and a remake which tries to expand on Freddy’s origins, but just rehashes the murder scenes again and again. But try to get some sleep before next week- we still have more graves to dig up.
Welcome back to the graveyard, as today, we continue Halloween Month by entering one of the most famous haunted houses in literature. From the mind of Shirley Jackson, come a landmark in horror literature and film- The Haunting of Hill House.
Dr. John Montague rents out Hill House, a crumbling mansion with a dark history, in the hopes of uncovering scientific evidence of the supernatural. He brings with him three guests- Theodora, a young artist, Luke Sanderson, the heir to the mansion, and Eleanor, a recluse just emerging from years of caring for her mother. Both Theodora and Eleanor have had supernatural incidents in their past, and it is hoped their presence will spark something within the house. And indeed strange events do soon follow- noises are heard throughout the night, writing appears on the wall, and Eleanor begins to act stranger and stranger, saying she finds a kinship with the house (though it is implied she is becoming mentally unstable). After she endangers herself, Dr. Montague feels that Eleanor must leave for her own safety. While unwilling at first, Eleanor eventually starts to drive away from Hill House, but then her car slams into a tree, killing her. The reader is left to wonder if her actions were suicidal, or if Hill House truly did leave it’s dark touch upon her.
What Writers Can Learn- Perception, Subtlety,
Hill House stands as one of horror literature’s greatest works, and for good reason. In many ways, it flips the greatest rule of the writing trade- ‘show, don’t tell.’ The reader is told many things- the deaths and suicides associated with Hill House, Eleanor’s history of reclusion and paranormal experience, and even hints at lesbianism in the character of Theodora. However, what all of this means is left up to the reader, and because of that, the story can read many different ways. For example, Eleanor is clearly shown as a timid, sheltered woman, first controlled by her mother and then her sister. Coming to Hill House is her first real independent act, a fact she muses on constantly. Therefore, it is easy to see why she would form a bond with the house and its inhabitants- she sees them as signs of her own freedom. It also could explain why she is so reluctant to leave and return to her old life.
However, there is also a more unnatural possibility to Eleanor’s attitude. Dr. Montague’s profile of her states that there was an incident in her childhood where stones fell from the sky onto a disliked neighbor’s home. Readers of novels like Carrie would recognize this as a classic example of telekinetic abilities. Therefore, it is possible that Eleanor may be causing the disturbances herself, using unknown telekinetic powers. Therefore, her death is a kind of supernatural suicide. As for the incidents themselves, they themselves could be Eleanor’s attempt to prove both to herself and Dr. Montague (whom she admires), that Hill House is haunted and their adventure has not been for nothing.
But that could be a final possibility- that Hill House simply lives up to its reputation. The house has a long history of death- the founder’s wife died on the way to it, his second wife died from a fall, his daughter lived in the house until death, and the final inhabitant hung herself. This is a house with a long history of death to it’s name, and the gothic nature of the story never rules that possibility out, despite everything else that can be held accountable. Therefore, Hill House stands as a novel that is different for everyone who reads it- but chilling for everyone. For aspiring horror writers, this is the best kind of fear- one that is individual for every reader, and therefore more terrifying.
Hill House has been adapted for the screen in two instances, both titled The Haunting. The 1960’s version is highly recommended, but the remake adds several changes and lessens the insanity angle for CGI scares. House on Haunted Hill and Richard Matheson’s Hell House novel also explore similar ground. But no matter what house you choose to look through, the graveyard will be right outside for next week.
Welcome back to the literary graveyard, as we continue our Halloween journey. Today, we take on one of an American horror legends, located in the Hudson River Valley region of New York State. In particular, a small village that plays host to a story of death, ghosts, and mystery- Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Familiar to many, Sleepy Hollow is the tale of Ichabod Crane, a schoolteacher that journeys to Sleepy Hollow and pines for the hand of local beauty Katrina Van Tassel. However, Katrina has another suitor- Abraham ‘Brom Bones’ Van Brunt, who delights in pranking and frightening the superstitious Crane. Then at the Van Tassel’s autumn party, Van Brunt spins the tale of the local ghost, the Headless Horseman, a Hessian solider decapitated by a cannonball, and who now rides the countryside looking for his head. Crane is frightened by the story and later leaves the party, presumably after being rejected by Katrina. On his way home, he runs across the Horseman, and endures a panic filled ride to the Church bridge, which is supposedly a barrier to the Horseman. However, the Horseman hurls his flaming head at Crane, who is never again seen in Sleepy Hollow, with many wondering what became of him.
What Writers Can Learn: Ambiguity, Mystery, Suspense
One of the most fascinating things about Sleepy Hollow is its ambiguity. For example, none of the main characters are purely likeable. Ichabod is depicted as an overly strict and moral teacher, but a glutton in his private life, who desires Katrina as a way to access her father’s vast fortune. Van Brunt is a local hero, but a vicious prankster and a bully in many depictions. Even Katrina is hinted to be only interested in Ichabod to make Van Brunt jealous. Each character is genuinely flawed and imperfect, which makes who is likeable up to the reader.
However, that ambiguity also extends to the story itself. Nowhere is this more seen then in the final fate of Ichabod Crane. While it is plausible to believe Ichabod was spirited away by the Horseman, the story also suggests that he escaped and left the town to become a judge in another county. But it is also suggested that his spirit haunts the area. However, the strongest suspicion is placed on Van Brunt, who was described as an agile rider. The story mentions that he always had a knowing look upon his face when the tale was told, hinting that he dressed as the Horseman to frighten off Crane and get Katrina (whom he does marry). What actually happened is left up the reader, and with all the options seeming plausible, the terror of not knowing the truth makes the tale even more frightening.
Of course, no discussion of the story would be complete without the famous chase. Irving wisely builds the section to pulse pounding intensity, beginning with the superstitious Ichabod traveling down a dark road, the ghost stories of the party still ringing in his ears. As the Horseman approaches, Crane demands for his identity, until the ghoul’s frightful visage is revealed. Crane runs off, pushing his horse to the limit as he races for the bridge, the Horseman in pursuit. Crane reaches the bridge, but turns just as the Horseman hurls his flaming at him, ending the chase so suddenly, the reader is left drenched in sweat, stunned into shock and uncertainty, elements that all great suspense stories should.
Sleepy Hollow has been adapted many times in film and television. The Disney adaptation is best for younger viewers, as it maintains a fine balance between Disney charm and frights. Older audiences would be well served by Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, which is loose with the story (Crane is now a NYC constable, called in to investigate the Horseman) and adds a compelling murder mystery and well done gore element, while still paying homage to the original story. The TV movie The Hollow is also a fine choice- a sequel of sorts that deals with The Horseman returning for the descendants of Ichabod Crane, with many dark and genuinely frightening elements. Finally, there is the current TV series Sleepy Hollow, which resurrects a British turncoat version of Ichabod Crane in the modern day, along with the Horseman. While it expands on the story, adding Biblical, historical, and mythical elements as well as a modern crime drama, it is still an enjoyable and fun version, good for anyone looking to expand on the original story.
Come back next time for our final unearthed grave, one filled with ink and paint and plenty of ghouls….
Welcome back to the dark side. As promised, today’s entry will take us up several feet into terror, but also into a gigantic household world, the afterlife, the end times, and the outer limits of our imaginations. How? Because today’s entry is on one of the great American horror writers, the late Richard Matheson.
Who He Is
Richard Matheson began writing at eight years old, which is when he saw his first story published in the local papers. Since then, he created a legacy of entries in the fields of horror and science fiction genres, not only as an author, but often as a screenwriter. Some of his best work were the many stories he donated to the classic TV show, The Twilight Zone. These include ‘Steel’ (the story of a future robot boxing promotion, also adapted in the 2000’s film Real Steel) and his most well known episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” in which William Shatner is terrorized by a monster on the wing of a plane (the story proved popular enough to be remade for the 1980’s Twilight Zone movie). Matheson also wrote the screenplay for the ‘Little Girl Lost’ episode (about a girl lost in the fourth dimension).
On his own, Matheson also wrote countless short stores, ranging from suspense to science fiction and beyond. He also wrote many classic novels, including I Am Legend, about the last human left in a world of vampires (which has been adapted for the screen four times) and the metaphysical What Dreams May Come, a tale of a man experiencing the afterlife and rescuing his wife’s spirit from Hell (also adapted for film). Matheson was fortunate enough to write many of the screenplays for these films, such as The Incredible Shrinking Man, and even worked with famed horror director Roger Corman on a series of Edgar Allan Poe films.
What Writers Can Learn- The Basics and Best of Horror and Sci-Fi
Matheson’s contributions to these genres are invaluable; it is no surprise Stephen King refers to him as a great influence. His stories make up some of the best of horror and sci-fi, and are required reading for anyone looking to write in those genres. Matheson’s work utilizes suspense and drama, knowing how to build a story to heighten tension and grab the reader by the throat. He also understood the use of ambiguity, as many of his stories use paranoia to help throw the reader off track (even in 20,000 Feet, the original text never makes it clear whether the monster is real or the hero is mad). However, Matheson can also add unexpected elements- in Legend, the protagonist spends time trying to scientifically understand the vampire- why garlic and the cross are repellant, for example. And finally, Matheson understands the use of the twist ending- check out Legend for arguably the greatest one he produced.
The works mentioned above are really the best primer for Matheson’s work, and there are many collections of his stores in print or available digitally. His filmwork is generally well received, though The Last Man On Earth is perhaps the best of the four Legend films.
Come back next week, as we head to upstate New York and see if we can withstand the terror without losing our heads…
Greetings and Happy Halloween season to you all. I’m returning to the blog to kick off a favorite tradition- the October reviews of horror classics in literature and film (which will have increased entries to make up for their late start). To kick things off, we examine a horror masterpiece that is currently seeing a revamp in the theatres- Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Jonathan Harker, an English lawyer, travels to the mountains of Transylvania to finalize the sale of Carfax Abbey to the enigmatic Count Dracula. As Harker’s stay becomes further extended, he slowly begins to realize that Dracula is an undead vampire that has terrorized the region for decades. Harker is able to escape, but is unable to stop the Count’s journey, as he reached England and begins a new reign of terror. As he attacks Harker’s friends, they band together and with the help of Dr. Van Helsing, work to stop the vampire, who has begun to turn Harker’s fiancée Mina.
What Writers Can Take- Imagination, Morality, Desire
Dracula has gone through countless revisions and rebirths over the years, but they often overshadow the brilliance of the original text. To begin with, Stoker uses Dracula in a way that is often forgotten by the horror films of the modern day- he has little actual time in the novel. The story is told as a series of journal entries from Harker and other sources, and we see a much greater view of their world then we do of Dracula’s, save Harker’s early writings in the castle. However, Dracula himself hangs over each page, an invisible presence fueled by the reader’s knowledge of him, and the characters’ growing fear. This builds him into a much greater force, painting him as a force of tremendous evil, but leaving his exact nature to the reader’s imagination, which makes fearful to all, but in a very individual way for each reader.
However, there are aspects of Dracula that are clear, and those are the moral and even sexual undertones the character and vampirism bring to the novel. After all, Dracula lives with three brides that attempt to seduce him before biting him. And the fact that Dracula’s victims are all women, who become more and more enamored of their escapades as his power over them increases. It paints Dracula, and vampirism itself, as a sexual temptation, a force that would speak volumes in Victorian London. Both are seen as a sense of freedom, of release from society and all else. But the cost is high- continual murder and the loss of one’s soul. It is no surprise that the affected characters struggle to hold on to themselves even as their vampirism increases. They know that while their new desires whisper of freedom, they come at the cost of their very souls and morality- often the price for an overabundance of freedom and what makes Dracula so very dangerous.
As mentioned before, there have been countless adaptations of Stoker’s work. However, fans of the silver screen are required to view Universal’s original Dracula, with Bela Lugosi’s career making performance. Another excellent entry is Hammer Film’s Horror of Dracula, which is loose with the original story, but holds to the spirit of the novel, and contains some effectively seductive and horrifying scenes (as well as an original death scene for Dracula). Francis Ford Coppola’s version is best for a pure adaptation, though it adds its own romantic touch that still works with much of the original plot. And there are several group monster films that feature Dracula in a fine light (Monster Squad, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). However, fans should avoid the 2009 book sequel, Dracula Un-dead, which is written by Stoker’s great grandson and a film writer, which retcons much of the novel and is largely seen as an attempt by Stoker’s family to reclaim the Dracula name (which has long been in public domain). And as for the current revision film, Dracula Untold?
Skip it. Just skip it.
Keep your eyes open, as I will soon be taking us on a red-eye flight, where there just might be something outside your window…
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!
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.
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.