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The construct of the horror story contains certain predictable elements. I want to toss a caveat out here — not every story has all the elements or even any of the elements, but then not all stories are created equal. Some are brief and some are lengthy. Some horror stories are heavy on shock and vomit, and others are subtle. Some are written well, and some are written by me.

The elements that are typically found are found in two categories: atmospheric and archetypal. The atmospheric elements include vulnerability, immorality, and innocence. The archetypal list is a bit longer. It includes (not meant to be exhaustive) the witch, the primal beast, the trickster, the boogeyman, the reaper, the sage, the prophet, the wounded warrior, and the tyrant. I will explore each of these 12 elements with the hopes that as you read (or watch) your next horror story, you can spot them and how they move the story along.

Vulnerability. This is introduced to increase tension in the reader and can be presented in diverse forms. These forms are often cliche but can be novel, depending on the creativity and energy of the writer. Common forms of vulnerability include darkness or fog, nudity (think of Marion Crane in the shower), children left alone (which also touches on innocence), being trapped (clothes caught on something or literally in a trap), lost, a major support is killed or unconscious, blindness or other disability, weapon failure or weapon is ineffective, and of course, falling down while running away.

Immorality. When this is introduced it is usually the case that the protagonist is in some way morally compromised (rather than the evil forces being immoral, which is often the case). One example of this is John Hammond in Crichton’s Jurassic Park. His ambition to put the park on line and impress the world with his monsters has caused him to put innocent people in harm’s way. Marion Crane, again, from Psycho has stolen money to pay for a wedding. Often this moral flaw increases the vulnerability as it makes it more challenging for them to seek help, or is the cause of their condition in the first place. In some cases the immorality may be systemic, such as leading to the hero being an alcoholic or addicted to other drugs. Typically, the horror has a redemptive quality helping the hero see the error of his or her ways. This is not always beneficial in this world as the hero may be destroyed by the horror anyway. This motif is the backbone of many fairy tales, which likely were written to teach a moral lesson of some kind.

Innocence. This motif can can be presented in the form of a young child, in the form of naivety, or come when the protagonist learns that a trusted friend or organization is really the monster. This one again captures the vulnerability motif in that it creates doubt and destroys trust. If using innocence, be cautious of turning it into an inverted deus ex machina (monster out of a box?). This is done by careful character development and leaving subtle clues along the way that support the revelation when it appears.

Witch. The witch can be literal but also can be represented by her basic elements. Not to be confused with Wicca, the witch archetype contains elements of foreshadowing evil events (either supernatural or natural), poisons, and cannibalism. These elements also may be literal or metaphorical. While the character in this role can be male, they are typically female – representing more feminine aspects of darkness and transformation. Biologically, the female “receives” from the male, destroys what is received, and converts it to a new life. This can lead to a character that offers help but at a great price to the protagonist.

Primal Beast. One of the more literal forms this archetype can manifest is that of the werewolf. It can be less literal, such as the serial killer, a rabid animal, or a ruthless business person. If you can muster up the Freudian Id and remove all sense of Superconcious then you can write the primal beast well.

Trickster. In mythology this is Satan, Loki, Kokopeli, etc. In modern writing, the most famous example of the trickster is DC Comic’s Joker. The trickster likes to lead on the character and make them think they are not in danger (the mobster who is clearly menacing a character, then laughs to reassure that character that he was just joking, and then tosses him out the window). They are often the source of deception when the motif includes innocence. 

Boogeyman. A combination of the primal beast and the trickster, the boogeyman is essentially an externalization of the fear of the protagonist. It is usually hard to discern, and literally is the shadow in the closet or the eyes under the bed. Be careful with this one that you don’t reveal it or give it too literal a form. The less shown the scarier the monster. In figurative usage, the boogeman can be a shadow agency that the protagonist cannot prove exists. In Angels and Demons, Dan Brown makes decent use of this archetype in the figurative sense with his Illuminati. 

Reaper. This is the manifestation of death itself. In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol the reaper takes the form of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. While it can be literal, the reaper can also appear figuratively. The Langoliers in the Stephen King short story by the same name, take on the role of reaper.

Sage. Traditionally, the use of the sage is often as the expert help to the protagonist. It might be a wise person who has been around long enough to understand the evil they face, or it could be a scientist. Ian Malcom, the Ghost of Marley, Vittoria, in the previously mentioned works, all assume this archetypal role. In Dracula by Bram Stoker, this is played out by Van Helsing. At times, the sage can turn out to be the trickster, although that transformation is becoming cliche these days.

Prophet. More literal than not, the prophet is often a minor character who may set the protagonist in motion, may double as the sage (see Ian Malcolm again), or merely creates foreshadowing in the story. The character may be evil, good, or neutral. In Dracula the prophet is Renfield, who is clearly meant to be evil.

Wounded Warrior. This archetype is a form of the hero, and that being the case often is the protagonist himself or herself. The hero has a fatal flaw or is somehow disabled and must somehow overcome this frailty to beat the monster. This archetype may be figurative, in the sense described in the immorality motif above. Robert Langdon’s claustrophobia is a good example of a more or less literal wound, whereas Scrooge’s greed becomes his wound.

Tyrant. Often our antagonist, the tyrant is represented by any character who is clearly more powerful than the protagonist and is not afraid to flaunt that power. It can be used in conjunction with other elements, such as the primal beast, the witch, innocence, vulnerability, etc. Dracula is a great example of the tyrant.

I hope that this list helps with plot and character development in your stories (writing it out helped me quite a bit). Again, I hope that as you read or watch your next horror story, you are able to catch some of these motifs and discover how they are implemented to increase the punch of the story itself. Cheers!

 

 

I recall an interesting evening I once spent down by Sportsman Park in Idaho Falls, Idaho. The name of the park is a bit misleading, as it really has nothing to do with sports. The park resembles a Japanese garden and is quite lovely, situated on the other side of the falls and catching much of the run off into little ponds and waterways. It was nighttime and some friends and I were engaged in a bit of whatever it is young people do when they gather outdoors in parks at night.

A friend was taking photos, using one of those little cameras that took 35mm exposures. Nothing too fancy, but it had a flash. A few days later the friend showed me the pictures which contained a series of ghostly apparitions swirling all around us. I was impressed because we had certainly not seen these images when the photographs were taken.  I couldn’t figure it out, but she was confident the camera had slipped to the other world and captured evidence of the supernatural.

I did figure it out within a day or too. We were smokers back then and we were all smoking.  If you are smoking in the dark the smoke is not terribly visible, but it reflects the flash nicely. This creates spooky ghostly tendrils that swirl around the smokers. Friends then tried to argue that nobody was smoking at the time the pictures were being taken (I was a chain smoker so there was no real chance I wasn’t smoking).

I feel for them and understand where this is coming from. A desperation to believe, to have vindication for things you hold dearly true but others scoff at and mock. I bank on this a bit (or would if anyone bought my books), as the appeal of the supernatural sells horror stories. It is a powerful phenomenon, the need to have a belief vindicated.

Pareidolia is defined as a psychological experience where the brain, a natural pattern-seeking computer, detects a random array through sensation and perceives it to be a familiar pattern. If you have ever seen a “face” in the three holes on a bowling ball, you get the idea. People post thousands of pictures to the internet depicting what does appear to be faces or other images, and others become very excited by this process. They attack anyone who suggests the images are of something other than a white lady, Satan, or Sasquatch.

Look, I’m not exactly agnostic about these things. I like to think that they are out there, and there truly are stranger things than are dreamed of in our materialistic philosophies. I’ve seen things I can’t account for and sometimes the desperation to debunk some pretty weird stuff looks just as silly as insisting a palm tree in the rain is really the Mothman.

I am writing this out of concern for the ghosts. If we suppose such things do exist, do we not owe it to them to not confuse them with rocks, bricks, and shadows? Would it not do paranormal researchers a wee bit of good when making Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) recordings, to let each member of the team listen to suspected EVPs individually and have them all submit what they think they are hearing?

The power of suggestion is powerful and I have heard too many EVPs that don’t sound like anything meaningful, and then one person suggests what it is and everyone agrees. Sometimes I can make myself hear what they are saying when listening. This is bad form. If there is an actual message on the tape, it should be discerned objectively by independent parties, and not by one person who then suggests the meaning to the rest of the group.

Anyway folks, I just hope that reading this gives you a moment of pause before jumping to the next supernatural conclusion (or debunking opportunity). If something seems too good to be true, there is a good chance it isn’t.

 

Hello again my friends. I have spent some time on this forum discussing my passion for the horror genre (and its close cousins). I would define myself this way, I am a horror writer. We could go on some pseudopsychological tear trying to generate some ad hoc psychiatric profile for me to explain why that is, but I think the answer rests more in my insatiable curiosity for things undiscovered. Ancient relics, cursed antiquities, and things that drool in the dark jungles of my imagination.

I am a horror writer, devoted to that genre and that genre alone. I have toyed with the idea of branching into fantasy or science fiction, but when and if I do, it will be as a horror writer. I may write non-fiction as well, but if I do it will be to try to help end some real world horrors out there. But I want to step out. I want to sneak away into the home of another genre, and then hopefully get out the back door before her rightful husband returns home. And before my mistress learns of my deceit. If that is something that is even possible to do. Horror is a vengeful bitch.

Here is the dilemma. I want to try my hand at a literary contest. I am of the humble opinion that horror, once you shave off the schlock, happens to be one of the greatest of the literary forms. It has some of the most ancient roots. It finds itself in religious writings of the ancient world. Mythology is replete with horrific tales of the macabre. Sirens who sing sailors to their deaths (and devour the man-flesh from the shipwreck!). Witches who turn men into pigs (okay, that seems redundant Circe). Green Knights picking their own severed heads off the floor and reminds his would be dispatcher that in one year and a day, he will return the favor. Who can forget the horror of Grendel and his mother? Ghosts and witches haunt the plays of Shakespeare, Dracula, Frankenstein, and the ghost of Marley wreaked havoc on the denizens of their 19th century protagonists (okay, Scrooge had it coming).

Did I digress? Mea culpa. While I find, in my most humble voice, the horror genre to hold a high place in the literary world, there are many who do not. And many of these literary critics are perhaps the type who judge literary contests. I may be misjudging a bit here, and if so I am sorry. Perhaps there is a world where horror could stand a chance against the otherwise dramatic writing that tends to find its way to the tops of literary contests. I have not found many of these examples, and hence my reluctance to stay faithful to my true love.

In as sense my betrayal is for her sake. After all, if I were to even place in such a contest, having that on my profile might help me sell a few more books. I don’t see how it would hurt it at this point. There is isn’t anything there to hurt. So off I go to delve into a world outside of horror in the hopes of creating a living thing – – a golem, a homunculus, from the organic materia of my horror writing.

I just hope she doesn’t find out.

So your putting together your novel and you’ve got this really great scary threat to keep your menace your protagonist. Perhaps a serial killing menace, playing shadow games with your investigator. A small person trying to make a big difference in Nazi Occupied France – tiptoeing past the Gestapo in every chapter. Your well-intentioned but gravely misunderstood vampire must once more confront the raging hunter who has sworn to destroy him. Whatever it is, you are proud of your fiend.

There may be a temptation to use that fiend to continue to oppress your hero throughout the story. It is understandable, given just how terrifying and powerful your bad guy happens to be. But there is a danger here, a danger in oppressing your reader as well. I think of the film Unbreakable, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Having just been completely thrilled and owned by The 6th Sense I had high hopes for this film. Sadly, he wrote it oppressively. The film was depressing. The evil villain was evil enough, played brilliantly by Samuel L. Jackson, and the good guy was good enough. But it didn’t let up, and this did not have the effect of thrilling me more. It bored me  and occasionally depressed me. I found it unwatchable. 

The story needed levity and perhaps some other form of suspense. I could go on about the levity, but that seems pretty straightforward to me. Dickens has just horrified Scrooge with the awful wailing of Marley’s ghost, bringing the miser to his knees to beg a respite from the gruesome spectre of his dead business partner. You know the story. Marley tells Scrooge there is hope for his immortal soul, and it will come in the form of three more ghosts. Scrooge then demonstrates some of the clever humor Dickens embeds in his stories. First he says, “I — I think I’d rather not.” When it is made clear he is not being given an option, he tries to bargain with the ghost — “Couldn’t I take `em all at once, and have it over, Jacob?” You get the idea. Humor does not need to be Jim Carrey being interviewed by Jimmy Fallon funny. It merely need to lighten the mood.

The other form of suspense is a bit trickier. This comes in the form of either smaller story arcs, anecdotes, or mere happenstance. In the novella, The Mist, by Stephen King, the story introduces this idea in a terrible vision by the protagonist, David Drayton. He sees his wife and kid standing in front of a plate glass window watching the violent storm outside, and imagines the window shattering, eviscerating them with broken glass. King then adds to the tension by having David and his son deal with a downed power-line. While the main horror in this story is the strange mist and the nightmares within it, there is a secondary arc of terror when a religious zealot who is trapped with the hero and others in a store, starts a dangerous cult in response to the threat outside.

I am not Stephen King by a mile, but I can well empathize with his inspiration for at least the first two horrors. Being a husband and a father, he had probably experienced something similar to what he wrote in the book. He may have encountered a downed power-line and felt the raw power from the adrenaline pumping through his veins.

Oh no, I am not going to flip out that tired cliche of writing what you know (how many of King’s heroes are writers anyway?). Rather, I am going to say be inspired by what you experience. As you go through the day, consider those little moments of dread. They might be small and fleeting. Is that sound the elevator just made normal? This letter looks official, is it from a lawyer? Am I being sued? Was that a gunshot or a backfire outside the house? Is my child’s fever going to kill them during the night? There is a spider crawling over my arm! The little tiny morsels of horror that come and go throughout our day provide an endless treasure trove of dimension and suspension in the story manifold.

One suggestion (I should take myself)  is to keep a journal. Now we writers have heard that one before, keep a journal for story ideas. Okay, good on you if you make it happen. I am thinking a smaller journal, like one of those pocket-sized notebooks. Within it, you could record any little horror in your day. If it scares you, it very well may be scary to many people. If not, make it scary to many people. Let us feel your own fear! In addition, you can also grab any peculiar things you may encounter that could add color to your story. Ever seen someone lurching across the street, wearing the most ridiculous hat? That is a real person, with a real story, and could inspire a character and their story as well. And then, being the dutiful horror or suspense writer you are, you could have something really nasty happen to that person. Or let them live. You have the power!

 

 

About a month or so ago I got a summons to serve jury duty at the Federal court level. I had just smoothly navigated the county level process, making that treasured phone call the Friday evening before court only to be informed that I was not required to show up. Another summons dismissed and bullet-dodged.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t object to jury duty. While we could argue about the effectiveness of the jury in regards to promoting justice, it is the system in place and seems to be the best system at hand to avoid the nasty business of the government having unilateral say in who goes to jail and who goes free. I did object to this particular summons, received a month ago, at the heels of the county dog whose bite I dodged. This particular summons would not be satisfied by a single call. No. This summons requires that yours truly call every Friday from December 30, 2016 through March 3, 2017. Two solid months of commitment.

I dodged the first bullet, but last Friday I was informed that I had to appear this morning. So appear I did, and I will get to that story directly after this brief explanation as to why this is so amazingly difficult for me. I’m a counselor. I have mental health clients. I am expected to meet a bare minimum of client hours, averaged over a three month period to about 22.5 billable hours per week. Fair enough – but if miss so many days, well that starts eating into my paycheck. Not only does it put me at risk of not meeting the requirements, which has some kind of consequences I’m sure, but every billable hour over that minimum I have the opportunity to earn a healthy bonus. And given how little us counselors make, I need that money to pay the bills.

Anxious, frustrated, annoyed that I lost another Monday of seeing clients (the two federal holidays on Mondays the previous two weeks were lost), I drove down to the city, parked in the parking garage, and smoked through security. Mindful of my cough that is not ameliorated by the Daytime DayQuil knockoff I took, and its impact on my fellow jurors, I took my seat on the wooden pew. A pew that would cause my back and leg to scream in agony after a few hours of this particular torture. No room to stretch in front, and the pew was boarded underneath so I could not stretch underneath. The things are a great way to induce some deep-vein thrombosis.

I began to observe my fellow jurors. Mostly I noted that there were a lot of slobs. People with shirts untucked, clothing with spilled paint, jeans galore, and men wearing hats. Indoors. At court. I shook my head pondering whatever happened to the common sense notion that you dress at least business casual when you go to court, and show the court respect by removing your hat, when they started the movie.

The movie that tells you what to expect as a juror. It was right up there with those sexual harassment movies they make you watch when you start working at Jack-in-the-Box or Sears. Terrible actors trying to convince you that they had sincere questions about being a juror, but rest assured, they found the experience rewarding. We get it. Stop your bitching people, this is your responsibility as a citizen. You want to register to vote? This is what you get for it!

Movie over and the voir dire begins. For those who are unfamiliar with this term (clearly having avoided your civic duties all this time, for shame), voir dire is a Latin term that means “to tell the truth.” My philosophical brain starts kicking into overtime and ponders the reality of such an oath – can we really tell the truth if the truth is elusive? Should we really be pledging to not intentionally deceive the courts, with the understanding that we may in fact present false information accidentally, due to the frailty of the human condition? I wondered how the judge would appreciate such a helpful observation and thought better of cluing him in. It helped that he had a pleasant demeanor that reminded me of Drew Carey on Whose Line Is It Anyway?. The process would have been more entertaining if he had informed us that court was a game show where the evidence is made up and the oaths don’t matter.

They begin to call jurors up to determine if they are qualified, and nobody refers to the judge as “your honor.” One person even answered the judge with a “yeah.” We sat, and they questioned, and rejected this or that person. A few people were clearly upset that they were not rejected, and I hear that. It was supposed to be a case that lasts two weeks or more. Who can afford that? Not many of us, I would guess. I didn’t get picked. I didn’t get to plead my case as to my own hardship or offer psychological insight into the fatal flaws of a witness-based judicial system. I just got dismissed. It was kind of sad really. Dismissed. That’s it. No handshake. No going away party. Just sent off into the bitter cold afternoon air. With a reminder to call again on Friday night.

Hello friends and neighbors,

It has been awhile. I’ve been finishing up my masters degree and starting work as a mental health counselor, become a single parent of two toddlers, and the end result has been neglect of both my writing and this blog. But I am hoping to get both of those endeavors back on track.

Part of that is the paperback version of my short horror story collection, ….A Scattering of Ashes, is now available on Amazon. If you are interested in the novel or the original digital edition for Kindle, I would be open to any reviews of the work you may feel inspired to write.

Thanks!

So here we are once more – poised on the brink. A short story collection and The Noxies are now both available on Amazon Kindle, and I await the hard proofs to arrive. Once I proof the books, I will be approving the paperback sales as well.

Meanwhile, I am beginning work on my next novel (about time!). The working title is Snow Devils. Why not make this fun? Toss out some character names. I’ll pick the best of the lot to include in the story!