the horror

The Horror

I recently watched three horror movies on Netflix. Two weeks back-to-back, I hosted out-of-town guests who were, like me, horror fans. Hungry to watch fright flicks together, we combed the Netflix catalog for lesser known films we hadn’t seen.

I was less than impressed with what we found.

One of the films had an interesting premise that was, unfortunately, thoroughly mishandled. One was good until it forced an unnecessary and unlikely plot twist that pretty much unraveled the whole thing. And the last was a hodge-podge of scary imagery with no coherent story at all.

With each film, I felt fear rising. Not the kind the makers of the movies intended. Rather, a fear that good horror is becoming increasingly rare.

As with any marketable concept, there are plenty of people out there interested in making money or making a name for themselves. There are precious few invested in the craft. You could say the same thing about literally any genre, and all of them have immeasurable value.

Horror is one of my favorite modes of fiction. When I see it bastardized for a quick buck by the lazy or the thoughtless, it pains me.

Of course, there’s little you can do to make horror writers/directors take their stories seriously.

But what you can do is take your own stories seriously. No matter what kind of fiction you write, always remember that you’re contributing to something far greater than yourself. Something that extends beyond your own tales.

Make your stories matter. Make them something you’re proud to contribute. Even if you never intend to publish, tell stories worth telling. 

To shoot for less is…well, frightening. And not in a good way.

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the nightmare begins

Flash FictionOne of my first memories of enjoying horror was watching Twilight Zone: The Movie with a friend when I was a kid. It wasn’t terrifying by any stretch of the imagination, but it was unsettling. And yet, it was also cathartic.

When I saw the writing prompt posted on The Prediction this week, my mind drifted to one of the sequences from that movie. Without even pausing to question it, I started pounding out a 100-word ode to the vignette I remember best, which was based on the classic 1963 episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”.

Admittedly, I took some liberties with the set-up. John was way too high-strung to have been working on a crossword puzzle prior to his discovery. But, you know, the prompt.

While I hope you enjoy it, the story below is a nostalgic trip for me and me alone.

How about you? What was the first scary story you remember liking even though it pushed you a bit? Why did you like it? What was the feeling that came with the fear that made it weirdly fun?

Here’s the prompt:

100 words maximum, excluding the title, of flash fiction or poetry using all of the three words above (‘crossword’, ‘crude’, and ‘itinerary’) in the genres of horror, fantasy or science fiction.

And here’s the story…

the nightmare begins

It started with a scrapping noise.

John sat his crossword to the side. His itinerary said they weren’t scheduled to land for another 30 minutes. He slid over a seat and looked out the window.

There, on the wing, was a figure–a crude silhouette set against the night sky.

Suddenly, he was tumbling. A free-fall of terror brought on by the insane image. And that’s when he heard his own voice irrationally screaming about a man on the wing. He knew they wouldn’t believe him, and he knew just as well it was true.

A nightmare at 20,000 feet.

with fury

Self Doubt

Working through the editing process of my first book feels a bit like therapy at times. Let me give you a prime example.

My publisher likes my manuscript. She better. She’s publishing it. However, she’s been candid with me about a couple of flaws in it. Like me, she wants to make it as good as possible before we release that bad boy to the general public.

One of those flaws is this. She told me early on that there are times in the book when I explain myself too much. Instead of just saying, “[insert opinion] is true,” I prattle on for pages defending my point of view.

“It’s like you don’t know what a badass you are,” she told me. “You don’t have to do that. Just say it. Say it with confidence.”

Therein lies the rub.

Like so many writers, I have things I want to say, but I also wrestle with self-doubt. However, as the wise Sylvia Plath (and my brilliant publisher) pointed out, self-doubt will kill an otherwise good book. It doesn’t matter if it’s fact or fiction. Leave the reader feeling like you finish every sentence with a question mark and you’ve undermined yourself.

Maybe, like me, you don’t want to come off as an arrogant asshole. I get that. It doesn’t matter.

When you write, bring it. Bring it with fury.

Yes, I know that sounds like a line from a coming of age movie about cheerleading. Whatever. They’re still words to live by.

There’s no place in writing for an apologetic approach. If you have a story to tell, fucking tell it. Leave the apologies to those who doubted you had that kind of courage in you.

backstory

Flash FictionI’m late. Bah. I hate that, but this installment was tough to write.

I’m doing something kind of ambitious. Or crazy. It could be crazy. I’m attempting to mingle some real history with fictional history, and I’m doing it by tackling fairly dark territory.

Josef Mengele was a real man. You can read up on him if you want. He was a monster. Most of the stuff I say about him below is completely true, and given my affection for horror, that should really scare you.

He fits for this story, though, and that’s why I’m using his factual history. But as I typed the word ‘Auschwitz’, I wondered if it was right or good to pull from actual events when those events are as horrific as the death camps of World War II. Sure, it makes for good material, but is that okay?

For the time being I’ve decided that it is, provided the truth is dealt with in a respectful manner even when twisted a bit to fit the story. I have no intention of downplaying the abhorrent realities of the Nazis. In fact, I don’t see myself exploring that much further than I have in this episode.

The other thing about this story is that it’s almost entirely exposition. I know, I know–‘show don’t tell.’ Whatever. I generally hold to that rule, but this is where the story wanted to go, so I followed.

I invite feedback in the comments on a regular basis. Sadly, I don’t get a whole lot of it. But, here we go again. If you have thoughts, about my explanation above or the story below, please feel free to share them.

some much needed backstory
with very little present action
and a dash of forshadowing

Gloria and Hyun spent the better part of the afternoon plotting. Hyun would insist on referring to it as ‘planning’, but Gloria would snicker with glee at the notion their designs were a bonafide scheme.

For the greater good, of course.

However, three cups of tea and two hours later they were both tired, irritable, and frustratingly far from nailing down a plan of attack. This was due in no small part to the fact that Eris Cato Fiore was, as the saying goes, a tough nut to crack.

And he was, by all informed accounts, a nut.

Of unknown (and decidedly questionable) origin, Fiore first arrived on the local scene approximately a decade prior to his return. Initially, Gloria, Harvell and the others, whose number did not include Hyun at that time, took him to be a small time practitioner in possession of limited talent. Said another way, he knew just enough to cause trouble, so they kept an eye on him.

He dabbled in some dark stuff, but nothing that warranted anything more than a slap on the wrist. Gloria, herself, had been the first Guardian to deliver a verbal warning. His reception was cordial, if cold, and he readily agreed that several of his recent incantations could be dangerous in unskilled hands. On the subject of his level of skill, however, there was a severe parting of ways.

He flatly refused to heed the Guardians’ suggestion. Emphatically, he stated his intent to stay right where he was and practice whatever kind of sorcery he desired, including, if the fancy struck him, blood magick.

His stand off with the Guardians proved a lengthy, complex chess match. The nature of his magick made it difficult for Gloria and her peers to confront him outright. He was particularly good with warding charms, favoring the decimate-an-entire-city-block variety over more subtle stay-out techniques.

It was Hyun who finally took him down, and with something as simply as herbalism. She slipped him the enchanted equivalent of a Mickey. They charmed him, wiped his memory, bought him a plane ticket, and shipped him off to south Florida where, they were all agreed, he’d fit in just fine.

He rattled around in Miami for a while, then drifted south of the border. Last they heard, he was in Porto Alegre. Until three days ago when he was spotted in a Starbucks ordering what one can only assume was an overly complex and insanely expensive vehicle for sugar and caffeine.

His return alone would have been enough to justify action. In fact, it was news of his return that prompted Harvell to ask Gloria to lunch. That same morning, Gloria learned of Fiore’s companion. She shared the information with Hyun and no one else.

Liliana Correa, the Lady of Candido Godoi, was reputed to be the former assistant to and love interest of Josef Mengele, a Nazi doctor known for a variety of unsavory reasons. During World War II, he was stationed at Auschwitz and, in his time there, was one of the ‘physicians’ responsible for determining who would be put to work and who would be gassed. He was fascinated by twins and engaged in all kinds of unethical research, during and after the war, often showing no regard whatsoever for the well-being of his subjects. In spite of international outcry, we was never tried for his crimes against humanity, and instead died a free man, drowning off the coast of Brazil in 1979.

Like other members of the Third Reich, Mengele (this exposition will at no time grant him the honor of the title ‘doctor’) was deeply interested in the occult. On paper, his investigation of twins was primarily focused on establishing proof of a so-called superior race, but that was not his only agenda. He hoped to unravel the secrets of longevity, as well.

While in Brazil, he spent time in the small town of Candido Godoi, and it was there he met Liliana Correa. She presented herself to him as a midwife and nurse, but she was so much more. He was a monster of a man. A true human horror. But to her he was little more than a pet–a simple-minded thing she regarded with the affection normally reserved for hamsters and goldfish.

To put it bluntly, Correa was infamous among those like Gloria and her cohorts. Her areas of specialization were wide and alarmingly sinister, ranging from mind control to necromancy. She was, of course, far older than she looked, and that also complicated things, for her appearance was disarming. She might have seduced Fiore for reasons unknown, or he might have sought her out. Either way, her close proximity was anything but good news.

When the afternoon began to fade into evening, Gloria admitted temporary defeat.

“Hyun, darling, we’re not going to get this today. My head hurts. I need something stronger than tea.”

Hyun nodded, reluctantly agreeing. “I’d feel better if we had a plan.”

Gloria shrugged.

“Opportunity will present itself. When it does, be like a high school boy on prom night.”

Hyun’s brow furrowed.

“Ready,” Gloria said.

you can make anything

Make Anything

Dissatisfaction is an inescapably part of the human condition. Life is full of realities that fall far short of ideal. No matter how happy you are, how fulfilled, you can probably think of five things off the top of your head you’d change in a heartbeat.

Me, too.

And if that seems harsh or cynical or way too fucking deep for a Tuesday morning, hold up a sec. It gets better.

One of the many therapuetic gifts of writing is this: you can create any reality you want. There are no rules when you sit down to write. If you don’t like something about real life, you can change it. You can unmake it. You can turn it on its head.

Sure, the story has a will of its own, and your characters, like mine, are probably real people in your mind. I often feel like I’m only recording what they say and do, not inventing it. But the simple fact remains that all of it–the plot, the people, the purpose behind the tale–all of it originates in me.

So I bring my dissatisfaction with me when I sit down to write.

I don’t bitch about what I don’t like. I just remake it. I can be anyone, do anything. Sometimes I solve the world’s problems and sometimes I merely unravel them. Both end up being cathartic.

My point is simply this: writing is creating. It’s an opportunity to escape the bonds of reality. Think of it as daydreaming on crack. Don’t miss out on the pure, unadulterated rush of using your fiction, at least occasionally, to edit life so that it better suits you.

When you sit down to write, you are a god. If you don’t revel in that power, you’re doing it wrong.

further consideration

Flash FictionI like Gloria. I like her a lot.

I’m not saying she’s my favorite. For one, I can’t imagine ranking my characters. It seems like a cruel thing to do. I mean, it’s not like they don’t have feelings. And besides, I’ve only just met her. I don’t know how I’ll feel about her over the long haul.

Still, there’s something about her filterless way of talking. It’s charming in a weird kind of way–fun to read about, but you know you’d want to slap her if you had to have a long conversation with her. She’s a lot of fun to write.

I say all of that by way of introduction. I have (get ready for something you’ve never heard me say before) no idea where this is going, but I’m just going to roll with it for now. It might not be more than a long story, or it might be the beginning of a novel. We’ll see.

Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Gloria. Does she do anything for you? Give me your opinion in the comments.

further consideration of Persian
rugs, Harvell Devin, and
the true nature of friendship

“He’s too serious,” she said, not for the first time.

“Well, it is kind of a big deal.”

“Nonsense. The city’s not on the verge of imploding. He had time for dessert.”

Hyun was a smart girl. Smart enough, in fact, to know better than to fight a losing battle. There would be no convincing Gloria. She was loath to eat alone in public, particularly if the meal began in the company of another.

“What would people think, Hyun?” she asked. “If he left and I stayed, stuffing my face like some sweet-toothed cow?”

“I know,” Hyun said.

“I’ll tell you,” Gloria continued. “You know how people fill in the blanks. They don’t know half of what’s going on, but that doesn’t stop them. The world is full of idiots who think they’re clever. An entire restaurant full of people would think he’d stormed out because of me. They don’t know anything about Fiore.”

Hyun nodded. “That’s true.”

“That asshole didn’t even pay the bill. He just took off.”

“A disgrace, no doubt,” Hyun said. “But nothing can be done about it now. Why don’t you sit, and I’ll make us some tea?”

Gloria took a deep breath, the sort one takes when setting things right inwardly. She squared her shoulders and nodded.

“That would be nice,” she said. Hyun put the kettle on.

They were at Hyun’s apartment, a spacious studio on the south side of downtown. She’d been expecting Gloria, and, knowing her friend, a dramatic account of some sort of social disaster, as well. In fact, two ceramic mugs were already set out on the counter top.

If music tames the savage beast, chamomile might as well be Gloria’s Mozart.

A less self-aware person might wonder, in a moment such as this, why she was even friends with the likes of Gloria Morein. But Hyun knew full well why. To someone like Harvell, a pragmatist to the core, Gloria was chaos incarnate. She loved to gossip, rarely considered the value of tact, and often chased down conversational rabbit trails as though she expected to find pots of gold at the end.

But she was also perhaps the most gifted cottage witch alive.

Funny term, that–cottage witch. Sometimes also called a ‘kitchen witch’, a cottage witch is one who uses whatever is at hand, be it an elaborate spell, potions, religious artifacts associated with any faith, or even household supplies, to work his or her magick, (note the ‘k’). Hyun had witnessed Gloria in several truly remarkable moments, including an instance in which she fended off an entire pack of lycan with nothing more than the contents of the average cupboard.

But it was not her talent alone that drew Hyun to Gloria. It was her personhood, as well. For hidden beneath, or perhaps behind or above her trivially verbose tenancies was a rich understanding of the world around her. In plain terms, she might seem like a bimbo bitch, but she was actually quite cunning.

And loyal. Hyun would never forget Gloria’s loyalty.

In the time it took to heat the water and allow the tea to steep, Gloria found herself. She’d forgotten all about the tragically abrupt end of her luncheon date and moved on to more immediate matters. Namely, an assessment of Hyun’s interior decorating skills.

“Do you really think this rug goes?” Gloria asked as Hyun delivered her tea. “I mean, the colors match. God, I don’t think we could be friends if you couldn’t manage that. But there’s something about the feel of it. Your place has this sort of zen feng shui to it, and this thing,” she motioned to the rug, “is incredibly busy. It almost gives me a headache to look at it.”

“It’s Persian,” Hyun said.

“It’s a mess,” Gloria countered. “Let me take you shopping. You can do better.”

“Sure. But first, drink your tea and tell me what we’re going to do about Fiore.”

Gloria smirked. “You make me laugh. For the moment, we’re not going to do a damn thing. Why do you think I insisted on seeing Harvey in person?”

Hyun sighed. “Really, Gloria? He’ll probably get himself killed.”

Gloria shrugged. “Maybe. But regardless, we can’t get close to Fiore or his South American squeeze without a distraction. Enter Harvey, stage right.”

“Did you just make a Snagglepuss reference?”

Gloria furrowed her brow. “What are you talking about?”

“Snagglepuss,” Hyun said. “You know, Snagglepuss. He was a cartoon cat or panther or something. Pink.”

“The Pink Panther?”

“No,” Hyun said with indignation. “Snagglepuss. Are you even listening to me?”

“God, Hyun, I’m trying to, I swear, but I have no clue what you’re talking about.”

“He was always saying, ‘Exit, stage left.’ Like, when there was trouble he’d say that before he took off.”

“I said ‘Enter, stage right.'”

Hyun rolled her eyes. “It’s the same damn thing.”

“Right,” Gloria said. “And this rug is looks great.”

Hyun huffed. They drank their tea.

“Seriously, do you think Harvell will be okay?” Hyun asked after some minutes had passed.

Gloria gave the query serious consideration before answering.

“I think so,” she said at last. “He’s more resourceful than he looks, and he’s not stupid enough to just charge in. He’ll ask around, and that’s really all we need. It’ll be enough to get Fiore’s attention, and that’s the opening we’re looking for.”

“I hope you’re right,” Hyun said. “I don’t like Harvell, but I don’t like the idea of us getting him killed, either.”

Gloria shrugged once more. “He’s a big boy, and we’re not his babysitters. You stick with me. We have more than enough to worry about all on our own.”

Hyun had no choice but to concede. “That’s the truth if you’ve ever spoken it.”

your writing self

On WritingI wrote under a pen name for years.

In the beginning, it had a lot to do with anonymity. I knew many of my conservative friends and family would take issue with my stories. I like to romp around in dark territory. Not everyone is down with that.

But in time I cared less and less what the disapproving might think. And yet, I held to that pen name for a long-ass time.

Why?

Because it became more than a name for me. It became a persona. It was the writing me. I settled into that identity, freeing my mind to wander wherever it wanted when I assumed that name. I thought of it as a character, really.

When it came time to decide what name would appear on the cover of my first book (due out this year, hopefully sooner rather than later), I had a real dilemma on my hands. Use the pen name or my name?

On the advice of my publisher, I chose my own name. But I kept the persona.

In many ways, that persona is the badass me. The real me. The me I aspire to be. Why would I ditch that? Hell, I want to live that as often as I can.

So I ask, fellow writer, what’s your writing persona? Even if you don’t write under a pen name, you likely have one. Why is that identity important to you, and–here’s the money question–how can you pull the bassassery of that identity into your real, non-writing life?

I know. Deep stuff.

But please, give it some thought. The identity you write under matters, and whether you use your own name or not, it says a lot about you. The person you want to be as a writer is the real you.

Who is that person, and how can you be more like him/her all the time?

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