Stealing Reference Material
The bridge was a tunnel of chain length fence. It rattled with every step, a giant slinky bouncing. Waves rippled through the diamond patterns. Industrial lights swung from their hooks. My goggles turned them into spirit orbs, ghosts of urban explores who’d fallen through the gaps. With a GoPro mounted to my helmet, I struggled to maneuver around them.
The miner’s cap was heavy enough already, the camera made it dig deeper into my scalp. It hurt, but nothing chafed like the breathing mask. Tracing my muzzle, its straps cut right through a cushion of facial hair. The apparatus recirculated this morning’s coffee with every breath.
Seventeen stories beneath me, the river raged. This rickety structure was all that kept me from diving into it. I threaded my fingers through the rusty wires, incase the boards weren’t up to the task.
When a swarm of mayflies filled my headlight, I knew I was getting close to the other side. Something gleamed up ahead. It took a moment to recognize the grated treads of a step. The stairway felt even less secure than the bridge. Stretching for three city blocks, it creaked back and forth with every step. My oxygen tank slapped against my back. My bolt cutters hammered against my thigh.
Buried under all this gear, I was feeling claustrophobic already, the sewer pipe at the top of the staircase only made things worse. Someone had lined the mouth with glass. Brushing it aside with the bolt cutters, I leaned in. There was a crunch beneath my kneepad. The path sparkled before me. The last guest must have excreted shards on his way in. From elbow pad to kneepad, I bore the brunt of each of them. My palms pressed the walls, while the oxygen tank scraped the ceiling.
Unscrewing the vent, I lit the basement on the other side. There was a bed of nails waiting for me. Someone had taken a page from the Home Alone school of building security. Too bad they didn’t realize the sewage vent made the perfect platform for an intruder to stand on.
Hopping off the makeshift step, something crackled beneath my boots. There were grains of salt as big as pebbles sprinkled around the entrance. Someone sure didn’t want any of those spirit orbs getting in.
The room was hot and clammy. Sweat trickled into my goggles, pooled at the bottom of my mask, and dripped down my breathing tube.
Chemical stalactites hung from the pipes. Paint chips rolled off the support beams, wedged into cracks in the foundation. The concrete lining the walls had turned to gravel. Twinkling in the air, fibers spilled through a gap in the ceiling. My beam stretched all the way to the roof, where there was a flutter of panicked batwings.
An unholy trinity of toxins were in the air: asbestos, lead, and radon.
Scanning the walls, florescent tags glowed in my beam. There were no words, no gang signs, only esoteric symbols. These ones were unlike any of the charms I was familiar with. There were none of the traditional spiral hands, helms of awe, or grand pentacles to ward off demons.
These symbols were far more intricate, patterns stretching from the floor, up the brickwork, arching over the ceiling. They had impossible symmetry, resembling the complex exoskeletons of marine life, like corals growing on the wall. Their spray painted tentacles didn’t stretch toward me. They stretched away.
This wasn’t a protection spell. It was a binding.
Ever the Boy Scout, I reached into my satchel. With the flick of the wrist, my extendable baton doubled my arm span.
The tentacles led to a spiral staircase. I had some good material, but the footage I’d come for was somewhere up there. The climb did my back no favors. The GoPro forced me to go up hunched over. This put me at eye level with the rusted bolts, rattling with my every step. I felt compelled to push them in every time I looped around.
Half way up, I heard a creaking, followed by a loud crash. Looking down, I saw the stairs collapse beneath me. I ran the rest of the way. Hitting an edge, my helmet got knocked sideways. Sparks flew off my oxygen tank. Nearing the top, I spotted a row of hypodermic needles with their points ready to stick me. Kicking them away, I slid onto the ground floor. The last step fell out from under me.
“A little redundant.” I addressed the facility, “If you didn’t get me with the glass or the nails, what makes you think you’re going to get me with another trap on the floor? If anything you should be trying to get me from…”
It occurred to me to duck. There was a twang. A trip wire snapped. A jackhammer came down on the GoPro, knocking the helmet clean off my head. The light tumbled end over end into the dark. The pummeling pendulum whooshed back and forth.
Jabbing at the dark with my baton, I tried to follow the trajectory of the helmet. I spotted a faint glow. The helmet must have gotten some air before it hit a wall. It cast just enough light to let me see my goggles fill with cobwebs.
Dusting off the helmet, I screwed it back on. I couldn’t help but smirk, thinking about how cool the footage was going to look. That’s when I saw that the floor and the ceiling were covered in the same coral markings as the basement. These florescent tentacles lead toward an empty corridor.
I spoke to the facility, “Your traps say, ‘Go-go,’ but your symbols say, ‘Stay-stay.’”
Someone exhaled beside me. I turned to find a shirtless emaciated figure. His frame was all ribs and hips. His skin was pale enough to glow. His cheeks were littered with cysts. His nose had been broken, the bridge curved like a face in an abstract painting. His eyes had sunk in. The pupils were washed out, nearly gone. When he opened his mouth, a layer of skin streaked across his lips.
He looked to the extendable baton, “Is that your probe? Are you an alien?”
Anticipating my response, his boney shoulders shifted back and forth between fight and flight.
I cocked the baton back, “It is, and I am.”
I put my money on flight. Lunging at me, he bet against the odds. With one swift blow, I called him. He went down like a house of cards, waving his arms, fluttering to the floor.
Blood spurt from his temple, shooting across my boot, painting it red. Then it did something unexpected. Dripping down my toe, the blood left no sign that it was ever there. Running around my ankle, it merged with the other droplets, swirling with the magnetic pull of mercury. Ignoring a dip in the floor, the blood seeped upward along the tentacle patterns. A serpent with a long red tail, rounding the corner into the corridor, weaving from crack to crack. The blood wanted me to follow.
A strange calm came over me, as if the sight of animated blood was soothing. Turned out the encounter had me huffing down the oxygen. I’d have to ease up if my supply was to last through the night.
At the end of the corridor, the blood snake slipped beneath a pair of black doors. I knocked. There was an echo. Whatever was on the other side of this threshold was massive.
The doors creaked open, revealing a field of candles, a vigil the size of a hangar. Stepping into the room felt like walking onto the cosmos. There were no boilers, no vats, and no aircrafts, just a vast garden of light.
Whatever the facility was built for, it had been repurposed. Spinning around, I took in all the footage I could.
Mesmerized by the candles, it took a while to realize there was something wrong with the walls. From a distance, the brickwork appeared to be made of nothing but headers. Stranger still, the courses between them were stacked in intersecting lines, not the strengthening patterns common to buildings of this height. Approaching the wall, I saw that it was riddled with holes and rivets. Not holes, but sockets. Not rivets, but teeth.
These were not bricks. The walls were made from skulls. The facility had been converted into a grand industrial charnel house. There were too many skulls to count, more than enough to account for every missing person in the state’s history.
Wind swirled around me. The candles flickered in a circular pattern, spiraling out to the walls. The room quaked. The skulls rattled. I feared they’d come crashing down on me.
A chorus of voices boomed, “Who dares disturb our slumber?”
The force knocked me to my knees. Candles jut through my fingers. My legs were drenched in a puddle of wax. Struggling to my feet, I gulped. “Drew Chial, aspiring author.”
Their teeth rose and fell, “Why have you contaminated the purity of our domain with your presence?”
“Purity?” I muttered, “Did you see the guy wandering the corridor? You lot must have a lax definition of purity if–”
The room quaked.
I cupped my hands over my mask, “I needed reference material.”
“Reference material for what?” The walls echoed.
I tugged at my breathing apparatus. “A blog entry on how atmosphere can enhance a writer’s scenes.”
“What is this atmosphere of which you speak?” Their voices rang.
Brushing off my knee pads, I raised a finger. “I’m glad you asked.”
Creating Atmosphere on the Cheap: The Ed Wood Method
As a former script reader, I can’t tell you how many screenplays I read that had zero description of their settings. The most the screenwriters would give me was: EXT. CEMETERY – NIGHT, then it was straight to six pages of dialogue. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a radio drama with faces. Film is a visual medium. Give your audience something to look at.
Learning a scene took place in a cemetery, my internal set designer just slapped something together.
Sliding blue gels over the lights, he cranked up smoke machines, dumped dry ice into every nook and cranny. He called for cardboard headstones and Styrofoam angel statues. Teamsters nailed shanty mausoleum facades together. The night sky was reduced to stage lights glowing through black sheets of cheese cloth. The clouds were were just colored clumps of cotton.
The landscape my internal set designer threw together was serviceable, but it lacked fine details. It had all the atmosphere of Plan 9 from Outer Space. That’s why I call this the Ed Wood Method of story telling, because it forces the reader to come up with a slapdash backdrop that brings down the value of the rest of the production.
Cemeteries are scary, but you can’t just set a scene there and expect instant fear from your reader. You have to earn your audience’s anxiety by setting up the ambience. Show us something that doesn’t immediately come to mind. Something that tells us you’ve been there, that you know the lay of the land. Something that sets this cemetery apart from all the other ones.
Working for Your Atmosphere: The H.P. Lovecraft Method
H.P. Lovecraft had a talent for staging scenes, warping entrails into pagan symbols in the Antarctic snow, dressing lost cities with tomes of forbidden knowledge, glyphs that hinted at what was coming. He littered The Mountains of Madness with all kinds of evidence, long before letting the reader catch a glimpse of the dark presence.
Lovecraft was an architect building tension, mounting dread. He left empty spaces in his cavernous ruins, dark places for his readers to fill with nightmares. Rather than burn his audience out on confrontations with creatures, he chilled them with atmosphere.
Lovecraft’s favorite word was “indescribable.” He’d lead you to the terror below, describe its tendrils in a blur of movement, and leave you to put the rest of the pieces together. He knew that the best horror stories were a collaborative effort between the writer and the reader. He knew that the audience’s imagination was not a screen to present events, but a canvas filled by the reader’s interpretation.
Lovecraft isn’t known for dialogue or characterization. By all accounts, he was sparse on both fronts, but he was a master of description. Give him a house and he’d fill the walls with rats. Give him an attic and he’d fill the air with things swimming on sympathetic vibrations. Give him a cave and he’d fill it with the remnants of a lost civilization, and the very creatures that did it in.
Building Your Story on the Atmosphere: My Method
When a premise escapes me, I’ll write a description-centric story. When it hits a wall, I’ll describe the scenery. When I’m all out of life events to reference, I’ll mine the places I’ve been. The narrative that opens this blog is a combination of spaces I’ve seen urban exploring. I grafted the chain length fence from St. Paul’s Island Station Power Plant onto Stillwater’s Tall Bridge. I linked a sewage pipe from White Bear Lake to the bowels of the Walker Art Center. I borrowed the dilapidated ceiling from an abandon apartment complex.
I think of these pieces as studies, like list poems, they’re workouts to keep the creative juices flowing. If I have nothing to say, I’ll just interpret the details of something. It might seem like a waste of time, but it keeps me writing. This method is a great tool for chiseling a sculpture out of writers’ block.
Sometimes atmosphere building can develop into plot structure. The combined settings reveal the stages of a journey. They compel me to go back and plant more evidence along the way.
I Dare You: a Challenge for Writers
In Screenwriting 101 we weren’t allowed to write dialogue for the entire semester. Speech was a story telling crutch, the professor wanted us to build up our descriptive muscles.
He tapped a dry erase marker against his palm. “Every week I want you to go somewhere you feel out of place and write about it. I want you to exit your comfort zone and enter the great unknown.”
The first week I downed two pints of Guinness and stumbled into the Church of Scientology to get myself a free personality test. After learning I was depressed and in dire need of an audit, I begged my way into their bathroom. The tester waited outside the door, just in case I wandered off and started taking pictures. I already had all the mnemonic negatives I would ever need.
The next week I explored the deadly Mississippi cave system, where local gangsters hid during prohibition.
The third week I went to a lesbian bar called π. Turned out, I wasn’t all that uncomfortable (not for the creepy reasons you’re thinking). They played good music, had an inclusive vibe, and welcomed me into a dance off.
Every week I added new wings to my memory palace, finding new venues to play out my little dramas. I found the perfect dark alley to stage my crime scenes. I found a water tower that looked like it was built by the Knights Templar. I found a seedy night club, complete with its own bondage dungeon.
I dare you to do the same. Go exploring. You don’t need to find an abandon asylum to get the job done. If your true fear is social situations, get into one. Your alienation will make you a better observer. You’ll notice things others take for granted.
Think about all the aspects of your location that you couldn’t come up with on your own. The ones you had to be there to see, the ones that have the potential to make a setting feel unique. This should teach you which details are redundant and which ones are essential. Don’t let your descriptions read like police reports. Don’t overwhelm your reader with an orgy of evidence. Plant just enough to give them a bad feeling. Their imagination will do the rest.
For more writing tricks, check out: Eavesdropping Advisory for a method for stealing dialogue from rude people, and On Sherlocking for reading the subtext in body language.