The Dream

Here’s a new short story I wrote. Not EXACTLY Horror.

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The dream always starts the same.

I’m walking up stairs carved into a mountainside. The uneven stone steps, cracked and half-eaten by grass and dirt, stretch up as far as I can see. Looking back, they stretch around a bend, the walls of the mountain blocking my view of anything but sky.

In the dream, I know what awaits me at the top. What I’m climbing toward. But when I wake up, I can never remember what it is, or why it’s so important that I get there.

The sky above me is almost as grey as the mountain, streaked with white and blotchy with dark blue. I can’t tell where the sun is. If there is a sun.

I walk on and on. Never slowing. Never tiring. Never running short on breath. I can, and will, climb this mountain forever, until I reach what I’m moving toward.

Eventually, I can see the top, Far above and ahead. Seeing my destination doesn’t make me slow my step, but it doesn’t make me climb faster. I just continue on. The fact that I will reach it is accepted, almost fatalistically.

How long have I been climbing? If there is any such thing as time, here, I can’t tell it. I might have been climbing forever, or for an hour. All that I know is that I’m almost done.

Here, the dream differs. Sometimes my entire jaw aches, and I realize I’ve been grinding my teeth. Sometimes, I feel a biting pain in my hands, and realize my fingernails have broken the skin. It’s never until these moments that I realize I’m afraid.

Whatever’s at the top, whatever I don’t remember, scares me.

Last night, I was closer to the top than ever before. My eyes could almost see over the top step. I could almost tell what awaited me.

I heard a familiar voice behind and below me. Awake, I can’t tell you who it was. Someone important to me. Someone I’d trust with my life. I can’t turn and see. I can only keep moving forward.

I can’t say who it is, but I remember what they were saying. They were screaming for me to stop. Pleading for me to stop.

Jaw aching, dripping blood, I keep climbing.

I’m almost at the top.

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Imaginary

It’s completely normal to have an imaginary friend as a child. Studies say that over sixty percent of children have one. It’s a way for children to mitigate loneliness or to cope with a big change in their lives.

 

A lot of times, children will blame their own behavior on their imaginary friend. It was Benny, the yellow dinosaur, that broke the vase, that hid the controller, that drew on the wall. Sometimes this is a clever deflection on the part of the child. But sometimes, the child really believes it.

 

As it’s been explained to me, children will sometimes use imaginary friends as a safe way to give in to impulses that they know are wrong, behavior that is often mischievous or even willfully destructive. They can project their actions onto these friends. It wasn’t them who dropped their parent’s phone in the toilet, who threw a toy through the window. It was Benny.  The child isn’t bad; Benny is.

 

I never had an imaginary friend as a child. I met my Benny when I was twenty-five.

 

Benny isn’t the name that I know him by. But I’ve been discouraged from using his name other than when it’s absolutely unavoidable. And he’s not, in my case, a yellow dinosaur. He’s a handsome, fit guy about my age, blonde hair, blue eyes, and a surfer tan.

 

We became fast friends. Like an old married couple, we could finish each other’s sentences. It was almost like we shared the same mind. I’m a quiet, introverted person. I’d rather play games than go out and party. But Benny is boisterous, charming, witty. He wasn’t quite the stereotypical drinking game jock, but he wasn’t far from it. After many nights in, he convinced me to go with him, do what he liked to do. Which was go out, drink, dance, and try to get laid.

 

You’d think that it would be obvious, a grown man talking and laughing to himself at a party. But somehow, Benny didn’t have any trouble bringing the first girl home.

 

According to police, Leila Matheson received five perimortem stab wounds to the torso, but she was killed by strangulation. More specifically, judging by the angle of the bruises, she was forcibly hanged, and the killer stabbed her multiple times before she died from asphyxiation.

 

I know that Benny isn’t real. That he’s a construct my brain has built in response to some trauma or due to some chemical imbalance. I guess that’s why it’s called a delusion. I know Benny’s not real, and yet, it’s Benny who killed those girls. I was a helpless witness.

 

The second girl, Carrie Vance, had sixteen stabs and slashes, but many of those were messier, more rushed, and some of those were postmortem. Police must have wondered if the killer had been forced to kill more quickly. By the time the third victim, Rosalina Franco, was discovered, this time with nine stab wounds, precise and unhurried, the police must have been analyzing the size and shape, the number and placing. Was the killer sending some sort of message?

 

No. Benny was just competing with himself. How many times could he stab the girl before she died from lack of air. Only stabbing her stomach, could he kill her with his knife before she died from hanging?

 

I still remember his laughs, his taunting. My pleading for him to stop. My helpless shame at not being able to save the girl, my disgust at my own inability to turn Benny in. Knowing what I know now, trying to imagine what it must have looked like, sounded like, for each of those girls, keeps me awake at night. Did she see an insane man arguing with himself? Or did only one of us make it out of my head?

 

Victims four and five, Fatima and Mimi, had twelve and fourteen wounds. Benny was slowly ramping up his score. The profile that the police released was of a white male in his mid-twenties, awkward and introverted, holding down a job in some technology-related field and living on his own in a house he owned. Benny laughed when he heard. That sounded nothing like him. With the police that far wrong, I was losing hope that they would catch him without me finding the strength to come forward.

 

The doctors say that the inability to turn him in was a part of the condition. Children don’t go crying to their parents that Benny wrote on the walls; the parents find the scribbles and confront the child. The doctors say that I was as incapable, mentally, of turning Benny in as I was of stopping him. Of stopping myself.

 

Victim six, Sari, changed everything. Sari escaped. Police picked me up, and I broke immediately, telling them everything I knew. Even knowing that I would be charged as an accessory, even knowing I’d spend the rest of my life in prison, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. It was over.

Imagine my surprise when they charged me with five counts of murder in the first degree. Imagine my surprise when my lawyer went with an insanity plea. Imagine my surprise when, upon hearing expert witness testimony and the recorded confession from the night I was taken into custody, the jury decided in favor of the plea.

 

Of course, it all makes perfect sense now. I am less insane than I was then, can see just how unwell I was at the time. Three years in an institution with daily therapy sessions (both private and group), and a pleasant cocktail of chemicals, will do that. I’m not what you might call sane. But I’m making progress.

 

Now there’s just one little fact that’s bothering me.

 

Doctors say that the symptoms I present are very similar to those of a child with a troublesome imaginary friend. I suffered trauma or change too large to cope with on my own, or isolation too great to tolerate, and so I created a friend. And sometimes I projected my own urges, my own actions, onto this imaginary friend. Deviant urges. Violent urges.

 

It wasn’t me that murdered five young women by stringing them up and stabbing them as they hanged. Who teased and taunted them, who competed with himself to be a more brutal killer. It was Benny.

 

I understand all of that, now. Benny isn’t real, and never existed.

 

The doctors say that I couldn’t have reported him to the police any more than I could have stopped him from killing the women. That, as a projection of my impulses, he held a sway over me, that as a part of my condition, I was helpless.

 

But Sari, his final victim, escaped. Because I stopped him. I couldn’t have done what I remember doing, struggling for the knife, cutting her loose, holding him so she could run. That must have been an interpretation my sick mind created. What must have truly happened was that I held the knife all along, that I overcame my urges to kill her, that I cut her loose, that I told her to run.

 

When I explain this realization to my doctors, they tell me it’s wonderful. That it means I am stronger than Benny, that I don’t have to give in to Benny. And that, realizing this, I’m far out of Benny’s reach.

 

The doctors tell me it was impossible for me to physically stop him. Just like they tell me that it’s impossible for him to actually make me do things. But I did stop him.

 

I know Benny isn’t real. But that hasn’t made him disappear. And now that he knows that we can interact with one another… Make the other do things, or stop the other from doing things…

 

Benny sees it as a game, now. Can he make me drop my spoon? Can he make me choke on a drink of water? Can he make me bang my head against the wall until I’m put in a personal safety room? If he makes me file an edge onto a spoon, how many times can he stab my doctor before I’m pulled off of her?

 

I hope the doctors figure it out before I kill someone. I can’t tell them about what he’s planning, any more than I can stop him.

 

Mr. Monster Review

During the summer, I started Mr. Monster, Dan Wells’s sequel to I Am Not a Serial Killer. I read the first half of it in only one or two sessions. Then I put it down for months.

I didn’t put it down because it’s bad—to the contrary, it’s very good. I put it down because, for the first time that I remember, I was filled with such palpable dread that I didn’t want to find out what happened.

In most genres, this would be a failure. In a Psychological Horror, this is a remarkable success. An even larger success is that, when I finally worked up the nerve to pick it back up, I tore through it in one sitting.

I Am Not a Serial Killer is about John, a teenage sociopath, trying his best not to become a killer. When a killer comes to his small hometown, however, he realizes that he is the only one who can stop it. And to do so, he must break rules he put in place to keep himself—and those around him—safe.

Mr. Monster is all about fallout. What happens when he stops the serial killer terrorizing his town? What happens after he breaks his rules? Can he throw back up the walls he’d so relentlessly torn down? Or will he lose what few boundaries he has left, becoming a monster equal to the one he stopped?

The second book is even more compelling than the first. The author makes me empathize with someone who has no empathy, cheering him when he resists his darker impulses, and sitting in quiet terror when he gives in. Despite thinking and doing truly horrific things across the course of the novel, I never stop caring about what will happen to him, never stop rooting for him to do better. John is a complex, dynamic character, and feels real to me.

The supporting cast varies in just how much depth they are given, but almost all of them have thoughts and feelings all their own that John can only guess at, and develop in arcs separate from him. Nearly all the characters’ actions feel informed by what they want and need and from the moment they are in. Almost never do I feel the author’s hand at play.

Dan Wells has a sparse style of writing that makes it easy to overlook the level of skill he consistently applies. There were moments in the novel that made me reread in admiration of a clever turn of phrase, or shudder from deftly-woven foreshadowing. One line sows a seed that is never given more overt attention until it sprouts near the end of the book, making me feel crafty for recognizing its significance.

My only real criticism of the book is that the twist at the start of the third act cuts strings that were woven through the first half of the novel, renders developing storylines moot. In a way, it makes the end of the novel feel separate from the first half. I might have been reading a different book altogether, were it not for the main character’s steady arc. This is made worse by the fact that the twist feels lacking proper setup.

For a lesser writer, this would ruin the entire book. But even as I read that scene, I was absorbed in the tension and driven on by the characters. Dan Wells kept me hooked throughout one of the more jarring moments I’ve read in the last few years. All because, to put it frankly, he’s one heck of a writer.

Overall, Mr. Monster is a better book than the first in the series. It pushed my engagement with the characters and their lives further. But more than that, Mr. Monster gave me moments of dread and terror. And that’s all you can ask for when you pick up a Horror novel.

Late Halloween Treats

In the spirit of Halloween, here are a couple of incredibly short Horror pieces I’ve written in the last couple of months. They’re just quick scribbles, so forgive the grammar.


The other me is insane.

It’s like something from the Twilight Zone. Some evil copy from another dimension. But this isn’t some twisted thing pretending to be me, a mirror opposite that is everything I’m not.

He IS me.

In the madness of the world around me, the WORLDS around me, going insane is the only action that makes sense. Anything else feels like delusion.

This other me has given in, has made the choice that makes sense. He’s become a part of the tableau of horrors. He belongs. Even now I can hear him, like some animal thing, scurrying.

Everything around me is what COULD be, everything that could be. Maybe not all in the same place at the same time. I turn my head, and the once-shattered lamp in the corner casts a flickering light. I blink, and the wallpaper changes. Once I saw the broken lamp sitting beside the one that still worked, like twins, like he and I. More than once the wallpaper melded into an eye-aching mix of patterns, two realities occupying the exact same space at the exact same time.

Sometimes I worry about that happening to me and to the other me outside the door. Is it possible for us to be twisted together into an ungodly amalgam? For me, even for a moment, to be trapped as a part of him?

Maybe not. It seems that only non-living things flicker in such a way. For living things, like me, it is the world that moves, the reality that moves, not me. But then, maybe the lamp would not perceive its own movement, either.

I’ve had too much time to think. The other me won’t go away. Most of the time it makes nonsense noises, fingernails scraping against the door, head thudding against it. Sometimes it laughs, a cackle like a boot on broken glass. But sometimes… Sometimes it whispers.

Is he some alternate me, a might have been that I never became? The thought is chilling. That perhaps a thought or word turned my path away from what this other me has become. That, as they say, there but for the grace of God go I.

What he whispers is worse. Disjointed, almost nonsensical, he rambles about the nature of time and space. Of alternate realities breeding grotesqueries when given enough iterations–but also of the nonsense that can be made of sense, when thrown out of order.

He whispers that, perhaps, he is not some other might have been. The other possibility is even more terrifying.

Maybe he’s not something I never became.

Maybe he’s something I haven’t become YET.

My eyes follow the doorknob as it changes from crystal to brass, as the lock changes from key to turn to button. The door is bare wood, or is painted, is carved with squares or with circles.

Outside, I hear the other me eating. The knowledge of what he is eating, who he is eating, strains my mind until it threatens to splinter. Whoever that other, dead me had been, he didn’t deserve this.

My eyes watch the door.

Are all these things that might happen? Or things that have to, that haven’t yet? Either way, one thing is certain.

Some time, in some reality, the door between me and the other me doesn’t exist.

 


 

The dead don’t moan. They don’t hiss. They don’t screech or growl or whimper. They’re silent. Silent, except for the wet slap of rotting flesh striking the ground, of dead joints popping and gas expelling.

The dead aren’t hungry. They aren’t angry. They aren’t anything. They’re biological machines, meat pressed into the service of the virus. A series of impulses in response to stimuli. A host that creates more hosts, with no reason, and no end.

The dead make a cold, terrible sort of sense.

The Conjuring 2 Review

Let me start by answering the first question that most of you are wondering: Is The Conjuring 2 as scary as the first one? It wasn’t for me. But this is one of those cases where your mileage will definitely vary. One of the primary elements of the story, and a source of most of the scares for the film, is just something that I personally don’t find scary. You might, in which case you’ll find the movie as terrifying as literally everyone but me has.

So, that’s it, right? In Horror, the only important thing is that your movie is terrifying, right? And I’ve said that I didn’t find the movie particularly scary (for the most part).

Actually, I think that The Conjuring 2 is a fantastic movie, maybe better than the first one. And it is every bit as important for Horror as the first film was, if the genre learns the right lessons from it.

I won’t talk at length about the tense atmosphere or the breathtaking cinematography or the chilling music (although any of these make the movie worth its ticket price). I won’t even talk about the nice twist that leads to a much stronger third act than in the first movie, in my opinion.

Instead, I want to talk about the characters.

Almost without exception, the characters are fantastic. Every single character feels fully-fleshed, dynamic, and real. These characters are clever, brave, and goodhearted. They make you root for them, to a one.

There’s the downtrodden mom who’s still trying to do right by her kids as her world crumbles around her, one of the daughters who has become a target for a large part of the abuse from the supernatural entity, the siblings who try to stand up for her despite having no way to defend themselves, and even a neighbor family who stand steadfastly by the family through their descent into horror. I especially appreciated the neighbors’ dad, who reminded me of Samwise Gamgee when things got hairy.

But above and beyond all of these wonderful characters are the Warrens. Ed and Lorraine Warren are, off the top of my head, the best couple in any movie. I haven’t seen a functional, effective couple like this since The Thin Man (1934). They’re strong, sympathetic characters on their own, and either would make for a fantastic protagonist like Ellen Ripley from Alien or MacReady from The Thing.

But what really makes them amazing is the way they work together. They share with one another, comfort one another, and always, no matter what, respect one another. They’re a better couple than anyone in Horror, one of the best couples in any genre. And it never feels forced or overly-sentimental. It always feels grounded.

Did I mention these characters characters are smart? Because they’re incredibly smart. Any long-time Horror enthusiast will know how impressive the following statement was: There was only ONE instance in the entire movie where I felt a character was acting stupid (without proper motivation) in the name of giving the audience a scare. Only one character, one time, in the entire movie. Not once did I have to write off a character with “You deserve whatever happens for being so stupid”, which steals my sympathy from more Horror characters than not.

All of this comes together to make an incredibly engaging story that feels driven by the characters despite the supernatural events taking place in the story. This is what Horror needs to learn. Have all your characters smart and sympathetic, and when horrific things happen to them, we will care!

The Conjuring 2 scared me less than the first movie, but kept me at least as entertained. I’d highly recommend going to see this if you love Horror. Or if you like good characters and a good story and have a decent stomach for Horror.

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SPOILERS

The element that I don’t find scary? Possession. It’s a large part of the movie, and it’s just not something that scares me.

The moment that I felt they had a character do something stupid for a scare: When Ed peeks in at the music box near the end. WHO would stick their head into a tent that already has documented supernatural activity? Particularly when the demon has already nearly blinded you and you’re flailing around in a panic?

I found the Crooked Man to be TERRIFYING. Both of the big moments with that manifestation were incredible (yes, I did love the scare that I just complained about the setup for).

I didn’t find the nun manifestation that scary. In fact, I found her kind of silly. That said, once I saw the painting scare, I saw why they chose that appearance, and could at least respect their design for her in that light.

The biting really got me. The thought of a creepy old man ghost biting a little girl creeped me right out.

I love how everything leading up to the climax had plausible alternate explanations from an outside perspective. I almost found myself making a game of explaining to myself how that could have happened if the mom/daughter were behind it.

I do have questions left over. For instance: did the Warrens just happen to stumble across another house haunted by the same demon? Or did the demon draw them there somehow? I’ve been told that the Warrens’ house had the demon’s name all over the place (a detail I missed, suggesting that it had been following them, and maybe manipulated them.

Having the “man behind the man” trope used by a demon enslaving a ghost was pretty brilliant. I’ll have to rewatch to see how much sense the old man’s actions make in that context.

I do think that their fight against the demon was a tad easy after she learned its name, but I understand that they’d kind of written themselves into a corner. Just a bit more of a struggle during the climax there would have made the ending feel more complete, more definite. But it works ok as is.

A Crash Course in Horror

Epic Fantasy isn’t my only love in the world of fiction. This post is about another genre that I spend a lot of time and a lot of thought in.

I love the Horror genre. I love to read, or watch, or play stories that are innovative and scary, stories that make me look over my shoulder for hours after I’m finished. During my lifelong love affair with the genre, I’ve picked up a few concepts that should help anyone looking to improve their craft.

Scale is Everything

What’s scarier? A monster ripping through a city? Or a monster locked in a dark room in the basement?

Horror is all about personal connections, and personal threat. As you scale up the threat, you scale down the sense of horror. Sure, it can still be tense, thrilling, and effective. Large-scale terrors can make for great stories (War of the Worlds, Pacific Rim). But they won’t be horrifying.

Subtlety in All Things

This is why a twisted corpse twitching and pulling in a rattling moan is scarier than the same corpse leaping at the screen/character. Leave the audience room to imagine the next moment, and the next. Leave them room to imagine what the monster can and will do. Leave them room to scare themselves.

This goes double when it comes to describing/revealing your monster vs. leaving them mostly hidden in shadow.

Respect Your Audience

It’s not just a Horror story. Don’t let yourself be lazy or generic with those words as comfort. Respect your audience, respect yourself. Build interesting characters who are clever and resourceful and are overwhelmed anyway. Build stories that maybe the characters simply couldn’t have done anything to avoid.

There is more terror in being helpless than in being stupid.

And last but not least…

Find Terror in the Mundane

When I say that, I don’t mean that you should try to make a Horror movie about a killer tire (this is a real thing!). What I mean is, find what is already frightening, and make it horrifying.

Here are two of my favorite mainstays of Horror: A baby monitor, and a mental institution.

Sure, both of these are complete cliches by now. But have you ever thought about why they can continue to be effective in Horror? It’s because, in the case of the monitor, nothing supernatural has to go wrong for something horrifying to happen. And in the case of mental institutions, it’s because horrifying things have already happened in these places. There’s pain, the potential for pain, attached to these things on a fundamental level.

Here’s one of the most terrifying stories I’ve ever read, to demonstrate further. I’ll not say anything else to avoid spoiling, other than that it’s highly disturbing and contains strong language. (http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/Autopilot)

To Sum Up

Use small scale to keep the audience invested in the immediate threat. Use subtlety to build a palpable atmosphere of dread. Respect your audience to keep them attached to the characters and story. And use Horror elements to elevate already-uncomfortable story elements. Together, this will make for a story to keep the audience up at night.

Thanks for reading! What do you think are some fundamental tips for writing Horror? If people are interested, I have a lot more to say on this subject!