LOVECRAFT’S FIVE DEFINITE ELEMENTS, PART 4: WHAT MAKES IT SCARY

This week we continue a five-part series inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s essay “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” in which one paragraph stood out for me as the beginnings of a horror/weird fantasy manifesto:

Each weird story—to speak more particularly of the horror type—seems to involve five definite elements: (a) some basic, underlying horror or abnormality—condition, entity, etc.—, (b) the general effects or bearings of the horror, (c) the mode of manifestation—object embodying the horror and phenomena observed—, (d) the types of fear-reaction pertaining to the horror, and (e) the specific effects of the horror in relation to the given set of conditions.

If you haven’t read part one yet, here’s the link. In this penultimate chapter we’ll dig deeper into the fourth point:

(d) the types of fear-reaction pertaining to the horror

I take this to mean: What makes this thing scary.

There are all sorts of reasons to be afraid of something, including things that turn out not to be true, or turn out not to be so bad or even beneficial when all is said and done. Even if the ultimate reveal of your monster story is that the monster is actually friendly and here to help us, if you want your characters (and by extension, your readers) to be afraid of it along the way, you’ve got some work to do.

A full chapter in my book Writing Monsters is called, appropriately, “What Makes a Monster Scary?” and you can read that here. There I actually break down the ten most common phobias to look at what psychologists have identified are common fears, however irrational. Then I did my best to break down what makes a monster scary and got it down to any combination of one, some, or all of these seven traits:

  • They are unpredictable
  • They have a disturbing capacity for violence
  • They exhibit “otherness”
  • They are amoral
  • They are beyond our control
  • They are terrifying in appearance
  • They turn us into prey

I’ll let you go back to the book or to that post for more on each point, but I’d like add an eighth and that’s that they show us something terrifying inside of us.

In the same way that your “one weird thing,” be it monster, artifact, spell, or what have you, can bring out the good or evil in the people who encounter it, revealing their strengths and weaknesses, sometimes the “weird thing” has been inside us all along and the horror begins when that’s revealed. Or better yet, is sustained while we worry that it might be revealed. More on that in my post Surprise vs. Suspense vs. Writing Monsters.

This is the idea of transformation—the fear of turning into a monster, or of having your personality, your sense of self, your individual agency taken from you. This is why Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Night of the Living Dead are scary—we’re either taken over by something that turns us into monsters, or some amoral, non-intelligent cause (a plague, etc.) transforms us into monsters.

Going back to role-playing games for a second week, this is where you get into a monster’s “special attacks.” Likewise, the effects of a particular magical item or spell. What does this thing do to you? Does it bite you, eat you, absorb you, enslave you? These all sound scary to me, but a simple statement like “zombies eat living humans,” isn’t going to be enough to put the fear of zombies into your readers.

In a post from last May I called on you to Show Your Villain Being Villainous, and I should have added to that: Show your monster being monstrous, show your one weird thing being weird, or as Chuck Wendig said in “25 Things You Should Know About Writing Horror”:

Beneath plot and beneath story is a greasy, grimy subtextual layer of pacing—the tension and recoil of dread and revulsion. Dread is a kind of septic fear, a grim certainty that bad things are coming. Revulsion occurs when we see how these bad things unfold. We know that the monster is coming, and at some point we must see the wretchedness of the beast laid bare. Dread, revulsion, dread, revulsion.

Showing the emotion of fear is as difficult as any other emotion, and though it feels as though I’m sending you to other posts an awful lot this week, I did get into that in my series on emotions, namely fear.

Here’s part of a scene from my horror novel Completely Broken, in which I attempted to layer into one scene various fears—fear of enslavement, fear of the unknown or of the seemingly impossible, and fear of physical pain and mutilation:

Gilroy’s reflection studied him with Jake’s unyielding stare. Like he kept track of sleepless hours, he kept track of Jake’s visits—twelve so far, not counting the times he had to huddle in a corner and not move or the demons would see him. The demons came dozens, maybe hundreds of times, and he never saw their faces. Jake had come only twelve times, though Gilroy couldn’t remember a time before Jake. Before he was a slave.

Completely Broken

Jake looked away and Gilroy gasped, longing for the thing he most feared in the world: Jake’s stare, Jake’s attention. The demon in the bathtub moaned, or laughed, or growled—some kind of sound meant to convey reproach.

“I’ll…” Gilroy managed to choke out, “do it.”

The reflection met Gilroy’s eyes again and smiled. There was a line of infected black around the nearly orange teeth.

Do they look that bad? Gilroy thought. Do my teeth really look that bad?

“I know,” came rumbling from the mirror, “but you hesitated.”

“I hesitated,” Gilroy repeated, beginning to cry.

The demon in the bathtub started to pull the shower curtain down. The cheap, thin nylon stretched at the rings.

“You will lose…”

Gilroy wept. He might have cried like that when he was a newborn baby. His lips pulled back until he thought they’d snap.

“Your teeth,” Jake said.

The reflection came out. Jake broke the line of the mirror, but there was no shattering of glass. Tears and terror kept Gilroy from seeing the twisted, hideous mockery of his own face hurl itself at him. Jake’s grotesque, stinking mouth opened over Gilroy’s and came down so hard and so fast that his teeth, almost every last one of them, shattered in his gums as if they were made of glass. The pain was an explosion that made his head burst into dizzying light. Jake’s face withdrew, spitting teeth as it slid back into the mirror. Teeth and blood showered Gilroy’s face and he closed his eyes tightly. He’d never imagined such pain. His teeth, his whole mouth, were ruined.

The demon in the bathtub screamed, a shrill whistling sound, and thrashed madly against the cracking porcelain. The curtain whipped around but didn’t fall.

Gilroy looked away, put his hands to the ruin of his mouth, and sat down hard on the tile floor. The demon in the bathtub was gone all at once. He continued to cry, letting the reflection’s last “Finish it…” trail off into silence.

When Gilroy came out of the bathroom he came out screaming. He stabbed Howard over and over, the blood from his mouth mixing with his jerking victim’s. It took three minutes for Howard to die. Gilroy laughed at the strong man’s last breath, his own blood blowing out in strings on the wind of his vacant cackling.

I tried my best to keep this about my POV character, Gilroy, throughout. It’s his experience of the demons that haunt him, that make demands of him, and that punish any transgression.

Most of all, it’s never going to be enough to simply say: Galen was scared.

That’s telling us he’s scared. Your job is to show us he’s scared so we (your readers) are scared right along with him. Your readers and your characters should be sharing the experience of being in that moment, in that place and time, with that thing. In my Horror Intensive course I suggest finding your favorite horror movie—one that’s particularly well acted at least—and when you get to the close-up of one of the actors being scared, pause it, run it back, study it. What does it look like, in that person’s face, eyes, body, to be scared? Describe that on paper then run it back and add a layer, then find another scene like it, maybe even in a different movie and try it again.

I think we’ve all been scared before—what a lovely life you’ve had if you haven’t!—but not all of us have experienced real mortal terror. I’m not talking about the fear of the top of the roller coaster or the phobic nervousness of a rattling elevator or the childish dread of wait till daddy comes home—I mean the sort of fear a character confronted with an honest to God monster might feel, fear akin to: “This shark is about to bite my frickin’ head off!” A good actor might have somehow channeled that—let that be your guide, or at least your starting point.

And if you have felt that fear and can access the memory of it while remaining reasonably psychologically healthy—and after all, remaining reasonably psychologically healthy is all any writer can ask for—then I can’t wait to read your horror novel.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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“WRITE BETTER CHARACTER DESCRIPTION,” SAID THE 6’3”-tall, 349-pound, BALD WRITER WITH BROWN EYES AND GLASSES, WHO WAS A MALE HUMAN

It’s okay, I know I’m fat.

I also know that I see characters described in this way far, far too often. I’ll be honest—once might seem to be far, far too often. Describing what a character looks like is no easier than describing what anything looks like in a way that’s personal, emotional, experiential, and readable. But for me at least—and I know I’m not alone in this—the first rule should be: Less is more.

I tend to be a fairly visual writer myself, more or less describing a movie I’m seeing play out in my head, and there’s nothing wrong with that, at least in terms of getting that rough draft out fast. I’m also far from immune from “casting” my fiction—imagining certain characters as played by specific actors or other real people. This isn’t a bad thing, actually. It can help you keep an image of that character in your mind, even give you ideas for speech patterns or other character cues. But eventually it comes time to really make that character your own, to solidify him, her, or it in your mind as a unique individual. The temptation may then arise to convey that in as much detail as possible in the hope that you and your readers—every last one of your readers—will share a mental image down to the smallest detail.

Readers love that, right?

Wrong.

Elmore Leonard wrote in his rules for writers:

Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.

You might not necessarily want to be as stripped down in your prose as Hemingway—I know I’m not—but still. Maybe we set that one sentence of Hemingway’s on one end of the spectrum and an exhaustive list of physical attributes on the other.

If you’re really honest with yourself (and I know that’s hard to do) you have to ask yourself, in the voice not of your characters or the actors you hope might one day play them in your HBO series, but in the voice of your readers: “Why do we care about anyone’s eye or hair color or height?” I hope at least you realize that going to the numbers just plain stops your story in its tracks. She was 5’7” tall with auburn hair cut 1.3” from her shoulders and stood on size 10 feet . . . Now I feel like I’m being asked to do a math problem, or worse: remember this stuff for later.

In “How to Write Kick-Ass Character Descriptions” Meghan Ward wrote:

No matter how creative you get, describing a person according to his or her hair and eye color is A) Lazy B) Boring C) Ineffective D) Not memorable. Really—does telling you a woman has brown eyes and frizzy black hair give you ANY sense of what she looks like? Does it reveal anything unique about her that doesn’t apply to 500,000 other people? Does it reveal anything about her character? Nay, nay and nay. And adding an age doesn’t help much either.

Agreed!

I even have to ask: “Why do we care that this guy is tall, she’s stocky, or someone else is left-handed?”

Rachel Scheller tackled this in “11 Secrets to Writing Effective Character Description”:

When we describe a character, factual information alone is not sufficient, no matter how accurate it might be. The details must appeal to our senses. Phrases that merely label (like tall, middle-aged, and average) bring no clear image to our minds.

And here’s why:

Your readers want to cast the “movie” themselves.

My Photoshop Kung Fu is the Best!

When I read Robert E. Howard, Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t Conan, I am. I want to be a part of the stories I read, and we have to remember not just as readers ourselves but as writers that reading itself is a creative act. I’ve cautioned you to give your readers the benefit of the doubt in terms of dialog and what characters don’t have to say, what body language and “business” can convey, and the same, at least, holds true of what these people look like.

It’s not about the laundry list, about the procedural description, about a detailed dossier on each character—good, well-crafted fiction is about a shared emotional experience.

Here are a couple of great examples of how much—or how little—you really need, both sourced from “Great Character Descriptions from Science Fiction and Fantasy Books” by Charlie Jane Anders and Mandy Curtis:

He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror. Later, going to sleep, he would feel the fiery smile still gripped by his face muscles, in the dark. It never went away, that smile, it never ever went away, as long as he remembered.

—Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

He was a funny-looking child who became a funny-looking youth—tall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola.

—Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Slaughterhouse Five

Okay now, that having been said, just this morning I read a story from one the students in my Horror Intensive course in which we’re given the exact height and weight of the first person protagonist and it was not just fine, it was outstanding. In that precise moment in that precise character’s life in that precise story it was precisely appropriate.

So as with all rules, heed this warning against detailed physical description only until you decide against it—and only with the same precision I saw this morning.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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LOVECRAFT’S FIVE DEFINITE ELEMENTS, PART 3: WHAT IT ACTUALLY DOES

 

This is the third part of a five-part series inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s essay “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” in which one paragraph stood out for me as the beginnings of a horror/weird fantasy manifesto:

Each weird story—to speak more particularly of the horror type—seems to involve five definite elements: (a) some basic, underlying horror or abnormality—condition, entity, etc.—, (b) the general effects or bearings of the horror, (c) the mode of manifestation—object embodying the horror and phenomena observed—, (d) the types of fear-reaction pertaining to the horror, and (e) the specific effects of the horror in relation to the given set of conditions.

If you haven’t read part one yet, here’s the link. This week we’ll dig deeper into the third point:

(c) the mode of manifestation—object embodying the horror and phenomena observed—

We started with the “one weird thing”—the horror element intruding on our world—then talked about what it’s actually there to do—what purpose it serves for that story—and now we’ll need to put some meat on this weird thing’s bones and start to define what it does that’s so “weird,” that upsets the apple cart of whatever world it appears in.

I’ll say again, up front, that we are not just talking about monsters here. This goes for anything that intrudes on the normal course of any world. So we could be talking about a monster, sure, in a horror story; or aliens in a science fiction story; or some kind of magical artifact in a fantasy story; and all the various combinations imaginable. Whatever this one weird thing is, surely it actually does something that unbalances things, creating conflict, peril, suspense, etc.

Of course, it could be that this one weird thing actually does nothing at all. We could take a cue from Dashiell Hammet’s brilliant The Maltese Falcon on that score. The Maltese Falcon itself is a thing of value, an art object, which we’re led to believe is of value because various characters are willing to kill to possess it. But it doesn’t actually do anything in its own right, and (spoiler alert) ends up to be worthless after all. Like the Maltese Falcon, your one weird thing may end up just sitting there, conjuring up something in the imaginations and ignorance of the characters around it that makes it valuable or dangerous—or both.

Even then, you’ll want to give it some sense of what they think it actually does, even if a final reveal dismisses it entirely.

I’ll start with my own advice. In The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction I get into rules setting and plausibility:

As with every aspect of worldbuilding, when you are devising a magic system, consistency is king. For example, let’s say you write a scene in which your hero, a wizard, conjures a ball of purple fire that engulfs an entire village, but a hundred pages later, he watches in impotent horror as a marauding gang of bandits storms down a hill. “Now wait a minute,” alert readers will say. “Why doesn’t he just conjure up that purple fire and immolate the evil bandits?” If he does conjure up that fire, it had better be purple again or readers will need to understand why it isn’t purple—is it a different sort of magical fire? If there’s no fire, then you’ll need to make clear why he’s unable to conjure it up in this instance when he could before.

The same problem would occur if these two scenes were reversed: if the wizard could do something on page 200 that he couldn’t do on page 20. If he’s gained an ability to generate purple fire, you must show us how he learned to do this in the intervening 180 pages.

Follow your own rules! Right?

Right.

But also keep in mind that those rules can be whatever you damn well please. This one weird thing can be a dragon the size of the planet Jupiter or a healing potion—you decide what your story needs (see Part 2!) but once you show it doing any one thing, that’s something it does unless there’s a reason for it to change that’s made more or less clear in the story itself. And note my use of the word show in that last sentence. Don’t info dump. Do your level best never to write a paragraph of explanation . . . of anything, ever, actually. Describe the thing, whatever it is, in action.

Then, in Writing Monsters, at least four whole chapters on the subject of what a monster can actually do—and just as important, what it can’t do. Consider the weird thing’s strengths and both limitations (the extent of its powers—it’s strong, say, but not infinitely strong) and weaknesses:

Remember, a monster’s limitations are the furthest extents of its powers, but a weakness is something that can allow your characters to hurt or kill it. For example, your vampires might have all the abilities of a nocturnal creature as well as superhuman strength and hypnosis, but it must sleep during the day and it can’t enter your home without an invitation. These are limitations that your characters can exploit. You can physically hurt or even kill your vampire by playing against its weaknesses. By now we all have a pretty good idea of a vampire’s weaknesses:

Garlic

Crucifixes

A wooden stake through the heart

Setting it on fire

Drowning

Beheading

Sunlight (usually . . . oddly enough, Bram Stoker’s famed vampire could operate during the day from time to time, although his powers were greatly weakened)

It’s interesting to note that over the years authors have taken some of these weaknesses away and have come up with new ones, or as Lynn Abbey advises: “If the monster in question is of a known species or archetypical creature, and its weaknesses are likewise apparent, then the writer’s job is to tweak the tropes—is this particular vampire really sensitive to light? To all light, or just sunlight?”

In Writing Monsters, I provided a Monster Creation Form that I’m happy to share here. It’s not meant to be some kind of perfect template for all monsters, but it can provide a few cues—reminders to consider things like “How smart is it?” and “What hurts it?” With just the slightest revision on your part, if any, it can equally serve to delineate the powers of any other form of the “one weird thing”: artifacts, spells, transformed humans, aliens, other magical or high-tech effects, and so on.

Also in Writing Monsters I grabbed a few examples from role-playing games. Though I’ll repeat here the fact that no, you absolutely do not have to first create the RPG then write the novel or short story—that you never have to create a proper game or use anything like game mechanics—the RPG can inspire the way you keep your notes. Consider the following:

Item: ROSE COLORED SPECTACLES OF DELUSION AND UN-TRUE SIGHT Value: -?- Looks: Small granny glasses with rose colored lenses. Effects: The wearer sees bad things as good, and good things as bad. He also never knows when he’s hurt. Area Effected: the wearer (he likes the glasses so much he won’t remove them.)

This a magic item from The Arduin Grimoire, Vol. III: The Runes of Doom by David Hargrave (1978).

Not a lot of detail here, and no real game mechanics, either. It isn’t a particularly original idea, playing on the old saying about people “seeing the world through rose-colored glasses,” but honestly? This is enough to start a story. Offering this as a writing prompt I bet I could easily populate a short story anthology with a dozen original takes on the concept.

These could show up in the real world in just about any historical time period including the near or far future. As was true in the original RPG, it can be part of a created fantasy world. This one weird thing could then drive a science fiction, fantasy, or horror story that could also pick up elements of mystery (the detective can’t see the truth of who the killer is with these glasses on) or romance (until she gets rid of these things she’ll keep falling for the wrong guy).

This might actually be all the notes you need. Mr. Hargrave apparently assumed it was all his players needed to know to run with it. Or it could be just a starting point. You may find that you want to add a few limitations—the glasses don’t function in the dark, they’re particularly fragile—or strengths/other powers—they actually adhere to the wearer’s head or somehow cause the people he looks at to actually begin to transform into their own opposites.

Again, the rules for these weird glasses are limited only by your imagination, and please let that imagination run wild and range free, but don’t let it get entirely away from you. Make this weird thing—any artifact, monster, etc.—plausible by carefully delineating what it can and can’t do. Then follow your own rules to build your story’s unique internal logic. However weird it is, if it follows its own rules, your readers will follow you anywhere—there’s no such thing as “too weird.”

Your characters might disagree with that, of course, and we’ll get into that in Part 4: What Makes it Scary.

 

—Philip Athans

 

Part 4: What Makes it Scary?

 

 

 

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ISOLATE YOUR CHARACTERS

Choosing to be isolated from others is a trait we don’t routinely recognize as healthy. Worse, we often see it as either the result of a dangerous psychological imbalance or the cause of a dangerous psychological imbalance. This is true in reality as much as in fiction.

In “For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II” Mike Dash wrote for Smithsonian.com:

The four scientists sent into the district to prospect for iron ore were told about the pilots’ sighting, and it perplexed and worried them. “It’s less dangerous,” the writer Vasily Peskov notes of this part of the taiga, “to run across a wild animal than a stranger,” and rather than wait at their own temporary base, 10 miles away, the scientists decided to investigate. Led by a geologist named Galina Pismenskaya, they “chose a fine day and put gifts in our packs for our prospective friends”—though, just to be sure, she recalled, “I did check the pistol that hung at my side.”

It’s not unusual to see isolation as a theme popping up in “weird” fiction, mostly horror, though I’ve found two good examples of science fiction authors isolating their characters from the outside world, and for very different reasons. The most recent is Joe M. McDermott’s The Fortress at the End of Time in which characters are essentially imprisoned, or more or less exiled, to the farthest reaches of space to watch for an enemy no one seems to believe is ever coming. This plays into a very old military tradition in which younger or “problem” soldiers are “reassigned” to the worst duty possible—the most isolated places:

The ansible rings true and through it all. The planet called Citadel is the farthest colony of man from Earth. The station called Citadel placed herself above the only desert rock they had in range with enough magnetic fields to sustain a planetary colony against the stellar winds. They gathered ice comets and liquid moons and hurled them upon the surface to inject life into the ground before the damaged battleship’s supply ran out, but it is not enough to sustain a complex economy like Earth’s. It is described as a desert in its lushest places, a wind-blasted moonscape where man has not begun to change the ground. Terraforming is always slow, and as distant as they are relative to the center of cosmic gravity, the speed of terraforming seems even slower to the solar system. Every year, Earth is three weeks faster than us on the Citadel. It is Sisyphean to consider a place like this, and it is Sisyphean to sit here in my little cell and write about what is obvious to everyone: This is a terrible posting at the edge of the human space and time, and everyone here knows it, even you.

But not everyone is necessarily sent to the hinterlands as punishment. Some people choose to go there, like the Antarctic researchers of the science fiction classic “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, which was originally published in Astounding Science-Fiction in 1938 under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart, and has since been made into at least three movies called The Thing. See how Campbell casts the environment as a second, even worse monster:

Drift—a drift-wind was sweeping by overhead. Right now the snow picked up by the mumbling wind fled in level, blinding lines across the face of the buried camp. If a man stepped out of the tunnels that connected each of the camp buildings beneath the surface, he’d be lost in ten paces. Out there, the slim, black finger of the radio mast lifted 300 feet into the air, and at its peak was the clear night sky. A sky of thin, whining wind rushing steadily from beyond to another beyond under the licking, curling mantle of the aurora. And off north, the horizon flamed with queer, angry colors of the midnight twilight. That was spring 300 feet above Antarctica.

At the surface—it was white death. Death of a needle-fingered cold driven before the wind, sucking heat from any warm thing. Cold—and white mist of endless, everlasting drift, the fine, fine particles of licking snow that obscured all things.

Kinner, the little, scar-faced cook, winced. Five days ago he had stepped out to the surface to reach a cache of frozen beef. He had reached it, started back—and the drift-wind leapt out of the south. Cold, white death that streamed across the ground blinded him in twenty seconds. He stumbled on wildly in circles. It was half an hour before rope-guided men from below found him in the impenetrable murk.

It was easy for man—or ‘thing’—to get lost in ten paces.

This is where we really see the story utility of characters in isolation. If, say, an alien monster attacks and the first thing everybody does is dial 911, the police show up, then the National Guard, then the Army . . . well, that’s a very different story. And though there have been stories that have gone that route, what things like the various versions of Godzilla end up lacking is a strong protagonist. Once the Army comes in, it’s tough to focus all efforts on one person, and show how a single hero can take responsibility for solving this monster problem, like McReady does in “Who Goes There?” or Ripley does in Alien—both much more satisfying stories, for my money anyway.

Sometimes, as we hit on last week looking at Lovecraft’s “Five Definite Elements” of a weird tale, it’s about isolating a group of people so we can bring out not just the heroic in the hero, but the villainous in the villain.

I adore this chilling little interchange from the horror classic The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson:

“I leave before dark comes,” Mrs. Dudley went on.

“No one can hear you if you scream in the night,” Eleanor told Theodora. She realized that she was clutching at the doorknob and, under Theodora’s quizzical eye, unclenched her fingers and walked steadily across the room. “We’ll have to find some way of opening these windows,” she said.

“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help,” Mrs. Dudley said. “We couldn’t hear you, even in the night. No one could.”

“All right now?” Theodora asked, and Eleanor nodded.

“No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that.”

“You’re probably just hungry,” Theodora said. “And I’m starved myself.” She set her suitcase on the bed and slipped off her shoes. “Nothing,” she said, “upsets me more than being hungry; I snarl and snap and burst into tears.” She lifted a pair of softly tailored slacks out of the suitcase.

“In the night,” Mrs. Dudley said. She smiled. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.

The Haunting of Hill House isolates a small group of characters in a haunted house and though none of them emerge as a “villain,” per se, the story is about what each of them brings to that haunting—adding their own metaphorical “ghosts” to the disembodied population of Hill House.

We all know that the confidence that someone will come to help gives people at least a bit of extra courage. In fact, our whole society pretty much depends on that. We cluster together as tribes, establish cities, so we have neighbors we can call out to for help. When that fails us we tend to go a little nuts. You’ve probably heard of the infamous case of Kitty Genovese, a young woman murdered on a Queens, New York street while her neighbors supposedly listened and even watched, but never tried to help or even call the police. Turns out that lack of response was more urban legend than urban isolation (I’ll refer you to the documentary The Witness for the real story), but that sense of the horror of isolation remains.

Remember the tag line: In space, no one can hear you scream?

Some stories go to the final step, isolating one single character. In Harlan Ellison’s 1956 short story “Life Hutch,” a lone astronaut is trapped in a shelter on a remote asteroid—with a malfunctioning robot that will kill him if he moves. It’s a personal favorite of mine, as is Stephen King’s story “Survivor Type” from the collection Skeleton Crew (one of the textbooks for my online Horror Intensive), which begins with:

January 26

Two days since the storm washed me up. I paced the island off just this morning. Some island! It is 190 paces wide at its thickest point, and 267 paces long from tip to tip.

So far as I can tell, there is nothing on it to eat.

From there the story is as much a fictional memoir as it is a particularly disturbing work of “body horror.” What Dr. Richard Pine finally resolves to do to feed himself makes for King’s most disturbing story ever, and utterly and completely relies on isolation.

Humans are pack animals. We need each other, even if we sometimes turn on each other, so when you want to scare your readers, put them in a tight space alone or with just a few other people. And then, maybe, The Hills Have Eyes-fashion, throw at them villains who are really isolated, like that poor Russian family.

Not that they were villains at all, but . . . victims?

From that Smithsonian article: “What amazed him most of all,” Peskov recorded, “was a transparent cellophane package. ‘Lord, what have they thought up—it is glass, but it crumples!’ ”

 

—Philip Athans

 

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LOVECRAFT’S FIVE DEFINITE ELEMENTS, PART 2: WHY IT’S HERE

This is the second part of a five-part series inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s essay “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” in which one paragraph stood out for me as the beginnings of a horror/weird fantasy manifesto:

Each weird story—to speak more particularly of the horror type—seems to involve five definite elements: (a) some basic, underlying horror or abnormality—condition, entity, etc.—, (b) the general effects or bearings of the horror, (c) the mode of manifestation—object embodying the horror and phenomena observed—, (d) the types of fear-reaction pertaining to the horror, and (e) the specific effects of the horror in relation to the given set of conditions.

If you haven’t read part one yet, here’s the link. This week we’ll dig deeper into the second point:

(b) the general effects or bearings of the horror

Some of this, written in Lovecraft’s often inimical style, can be a bit difficult to sort out. At first I thought this was meant to answer the question: What does this thing actually do? But then that also seems to be what he’s getting at with the final element: “(e) the specific effects of the horror in relation to the given set of conditions.” Admitting that I might just be forcing Lovecraft’s words into my own sense of how to write fantasy and horror, I’ll offer that what he’s getting at here is less what does the thing do—what physical or magical abilities does the monster or artifact or etc. possess—but what does it represent? In other words, not so much what “general effects” does it have on a character’s body—clawing, biting, or setting him on fire—but what “general effects” it has on the story itself, and the unique world (or version of the real world) in which it appears.

Writing Monsters Cover

In my book Writing Monsters, I devoted a whole section, seven chapters in all, to asking Why They’re Here. In the book I concentrated on six different things a monster can bring to a story, what they represent:

  • Monsters as Metaphor
  • Monsters as Obstacles
  • Monsters as Agents
  • Monsters as Sources of Pity
  • Monsters as Sources of Magic or Technology
  • Bringing Out the Good and Evil in People

I’m not going to try to rewrite the whole book here, but rather let’s think about this separate from the specific idea of creating a monster, or introducing into the world some living (or undead) creature. After all, not all of Lovecraft’s own stories were, necessarily, monster tales, and I don’t think he’s saying in this essay that “the horror” has to be defined in that way.

So if we replace that list of Monsters as . . . with some other “horror,” what sort of chapter titles do we get?

  • Black Magic as Metaphor
  • Aberrant Behavior as Obstacles
  • Nightmares as Agents
  • Artifacts as Sources of Pity
  • Fear of the Unknown as a Source of Magic or Technology

Feel free to use that list as writing prompts, by the way. But anyway, the one common factor actually ends up being:

Bringing Out the Good and Evil in People

I’ve belabored the point that no shortage of monster stories put human characters in a position of having to make certain judgment calls. In zombie stories from Night of the Living Dead onward the zombies themselves are the disruptive thing—the one weird thing that shifts the reality of the characters trying to survive the effects of this one weird thing not just on the characters physically, but the larger-scale damage the zombies do to society, government, law . . . all of our set of expectations, our normal world.

Some characters find their inner heroes, others allow fear and desperation, or other issues, to lead them to do the wrong thing. Does the zombie apocalypse turn you into a violent, power-mad biker like, let’s just say it out loud, almost everyone in The Walking Dead, or a heroic if obsessed and psychologically damaged scientist desperately in search of a cure like Will Smith’s interpretation of Robert Neville in the 2007 film version of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend?

Okay, I’ve been officially “zombied out” for a while now, but let’s stick with that example, since the Romeroesque zombie horde can so easily be replaced with the rogue AI genocide, the alien invasion, the demon plague, the runaway technology, rapid climate change—all sorts of weirdness.

Principally, in every zombie story I’ve ever read or seen—and I’ve seen a lot—that one thread of bringing out the good or evil in people holds true. There are human villains and human heroes in the George Romero originals, in The Walking Dead, in Resident Evil, in World War Z, and so on. In fact, whatever the one weird thing is, it will tend to have that effect.

This seems to hold true across the board.

If the one weird thing is coveted by more than one person, sides are drawn, conflict ensues, and in order to get it one might choose methods we find distasteful and become the villain while the other adopts methods we find inspirational to take on the role of hero. Case in point: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Some stories even make villains of the people who refuse to believe in the one weird thing based on villainous qualities like greed—the mayor in Jaws, for instance, while the reluctant hydrophobe Chief Brody rises to the occasion by going out to kill the shark.

Honestly, I could sit here all day and list one example after another, but I think we can all agree that what the one weird thing represents is change, and change can be either the most exciting or the most terrifying thing. Anatole France wrote, “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”

Your one weird thing changes the world for the characters that encounter it. That’s actually what it’s there for—to change the world in a way that allows you to say what you want to say about the human condition. And I know that you have something to say about the human condition because every work of fiction is the product of an author who, overtly or covertly, even consciously or unconsciously, has something to say about the human condition. If you’re the creators of The Walking Dead that might come down to some version of “the Biker Shall Inherit the Earth.” I Am Legend, at least to me, says “only science can fix science’s mistakes.” And both convey those messages by concentrating on one weird thing activating change in society to bring out the good or evil in people.

And when I said “society” there, you’ll see in just a quick overview of weird fiction that a society can come in all shapes and sizes, whether it’s introducing dragons to the world of Game of Thrones or zombies to the real world, an acid-blooded super-predator to a small starship or a shape-changing alien to a remote arctic research station. Your society might be just a handful of characters or the whole world—even the whole universe.

So then, “the general effects or bearings of the horror” is to bring out the good or evil in people by affecting some radical change in their society, every single time.

I get supremely nervous making sweeping statements like that.

But am I right?

 

—Philip Athans

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JURY DUTY

…and not the Pauly Shore movie.

I wish!

I’m pretty sure this is officially the latest I’ve ever posted our regular Tuesday get-together, but I spent a much longer day than I’d bargained for serving on a jury.

I know, maybe I should have some “canned” posts ready for days like this, but I don’t. I prefer to live in the uncertain!

But seriously, maybe we can get a little learnin’ out of this experience.

I’ve been working hard since the beginning of 2017–and before that, truth be told, to re-prioritize my own writing, with a goal of writing at least 1000 words every day. I haven’t been perfect on that score, but I’ve definitely been writing more.

But in the final analysis, this is a self-imposed deadline. I take it seriously, but at the same time I also live in the world. A world that includes, every once in a while, jury duty. Your world may well include that, too. Or a medical emergency, or some kind of work something, or a vacation. Something can intrude on your writing goals–and your blogging goals–and blow up your day.

And now I’ve found out after having left this morning at 6:20 am to drop my wife off at work and get to the courthouse at 8:15 am then leaving the courthouse after 5:00 pm, picking her up almost an hour and a half later, and not getting home until just before 7:00 pm that I have to go back again tomorrow.

And maybe Thursday.

So yeah, jury duty blew up my work day, and now threatens to blow up my work week.

But I will live to fight another day, people, and so will you if you need to take a day off to handle other parts of your life, positive or negative.

Either way, next week we’ll get back to Lovecraft’s advice for horror (and fantasy) authors.

Unless O.J. Simpson has been up to no good in Bellevue, Washington.

Heaven forbid.

–Philip Athans

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LOVECRAFT’S FIVE DEFINITE ELEMENTS, PART 1: THE ONE WEIRD THING

lovecraft

Lately I’ve been quoting H.P. Lovecraft’s essay “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” for added wisdom about atmosphere and inspiration, and though this direct little essay contains some real wisdom, it’s also lacking a bit in depth. One paragraph stands out in terms of a sort of horror/weird fantasy manifesto—not a formula, but let’s call it a list of standard ingredients:

Each weird story—to speak more particularly of the horror type—seems to involve five definite elements: (a) some basic, underlying horror or abnormality—condition, entity, etc.—, (b) the general effects or bearings of the horror, (c) the mode of manifestation—object embodying the horror and phenomena observed—, (d) the types of fear-reaction pertaining to the horror, and (e) the specific effects of the horror in relation to the given set of conditions.

And Lovecraft pretty much left it at that, with just a bit more on point (e) in the next paragraph, but I’d like to take these one at a time for a series of posts beginning with:

(a) some basic, underlying horror or abnormality—

condition, entity, etc.

 

In my online Horror Intensive and in other places, I’ve called this idea “the one weird thing.” It assumes that we’re writing a horror story in particular, that this is the real world (in any time period) and into that familiar setting is added “some basic, underlying horror or abnormality—condition, entity, etc.”—a vampire, zombies, a ghost, or some other sort of monster or supernatural entity. Robert Gray, in “13 Tips for Writing Horror Fiction,” called this a “hook”:

Your hook is the Big Concept you’re trying to sell; that razor-sharp, serrated edge that cleaves its way through everything else in the story. The hook is easy enough to create. Say the words what if… and then fill in the blank. What if… an impenetrable dome came down over a small town (Under the Dome by Stephen King)? What if… a family of inbred maniacs terrorized a group of tourists in the woods (Off Season by Jack Ketchum)?

Though a horror story will start with the real world and introduce the weird with the intent to scare you, fantasy (urban fantasy, contemporary fantasy, etc.) can do exactly the same thing just that the “abnormality” isn’t necessarily meant to scare you, at least not just to scare you. And this actually carries into so-called “second world” fantasy as well: It’s your invented medieval world in which we meet recognizable people who then encounter something scary, threatening, or beneficial: a dragon, faeries, or any of the same creatures of the horror genre (zombies, vampires, and so on). Likewise, what was the movie Alien but a science fiction story in which the crew of a starship happens upon “some basic, underlying horror or abnormality—condition, entity, etc.”?

All that’s meant to say: Don’t write horror? Okay—these lessons still apply to all flavors of fantasy and science fiction.

That leads us, though, to the first question: What is this “basic, underlying horror or abnormality—condition, entity, etc.” meant to do? Is it meant to be scary (we’re just trying not be eaten alive) or is it meant to be aspirational (we’re all trying to find the source of magic or some transformative technology, etc.)?

Buy It Now!

Buy It Now!

Pretty much the entire second part of my book Writing Monsters is concerned with this one point of Mr. Lovecraft’s. Though that book is, obviously, specific to the literal definition of a “monster,” some of that advice, at least, can easily be extended to any variation of “the one weird thing.” Think of this as anything that intrudes on the normal lives of your characters.

Generally speaking, when some strange new thing is added to the experience of anyone—or any group of people—its first effect is disruptive. We like to think we’re open to new ideas but there’s still a bit of the caveman—even the wild animal—in us to be at least suspicious, if not afraid, of something new.

Author Rachel Aukes answered SF Signal’s question: Horrified by Horror—The Books, Films and Shows That Messed Us Up with a story that’s about not a scary monster but a scary idea:

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was a novel that has stuck with me for years. A dystopian story, it brings to vivid life a tyrannical world where there’s a huge gap in human rights between the highly privileged and everyone else. It scares me even today because I see how easily we can lose our basic human rights if we do not remain diligent.

Of course that new thing, that “basic, underlying horror or abnormality—condition, entity, etc.” can be an idea. New ideas are unsettling at first and might very quickly change to exciting or infuriating or irritating, but the first reaction tends to be at least a little negative. We’ll get into more of that—how those negative reactions manifest—later in this series of posts, but for now what I’m trying to do is open up your definition of “the weird” to include just about anything and everything, or as Lovecraft put it: “etc.”

And whether you call it “one weird thing” or a “hook” or a “monster,” I can’t stress enough the vital importance of robust thinking into the nature of this “abnormality” on just about any genre story.

Gary L. Pullman put together a fascinating list of specific horror authors’ “formulae” that he boiled down to:

General Horror Formula

 

1. A series of bizarre, seemingly unrelated incidents occurs.

 

2. The protagonist (and, sometimes, his or her friends or associates) discover the cause of the incidents (often, it is a monster).

 

3. Using their newfound knowledge, they end the bizarre incidents (perhaps by killing the monster).

 

I think this fits nicely with the idea of the one weird thing, which is the cause of his first point, the subject of the second, and the problem to be solved in the third.

Hopefully by now you’re getting how important this one weird thing is to any story. In the next part we’ll start constructing that thing, defining what it can and can’t do, and more.

 

—Philip Athans

Continues in Part 2: Why It’s Here

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