The devil’s sales pitch from the book HE HAS MANY NAMES.
Noelle is a Hollywood transplant that’s been subsisting on instant ramen and false hope. A dubious agent offers her a gig ghostwriting for an author in a hotel where he claims to have had an unholy encounter. With whom you ask? Well… HE HAS MANY NAMES
By the year 2020 there will 101,228 feature films released throughout human history (according to IMDB). Assuming the average run time is 110 minutes, it would take 11,135,080 minutes to watch them all, that’s 185,585 hours, 7,733 days, 22 years if you don’t sleep or go to the bathroom, and 30 years if you do. If you tried to watch a new movie every night for the rest of your life you’d have to live to the ripe old age of 284 (assuming you watch nothing beyond 2019).
Cinephiles have a cornucopia of calls to adventure to answer, a diversity of dramatic turns to take, and a never-ending supply of new worlds to explore. So why do we get déjà vu whenever we go to the theater? Look up on the marquee. There’s that name we’ve seen a dozen times before, no roman numerals behind it, no subtitle. New year. Same old titles.
The answer is in the question. We have 284 years of options. People want to know what to expect before investing their time. That’s why franchise films continue to reign like eternal dynasties.
Rotten Reviews Don’t Matter Anymore
It used to be if an entry in a series was panned it damaged the franchise’s reputation. Back when there was a scarcity of long running continuities an Exorcist 2or Jaws 4 would derail a series. These days, in the era of shared cinematic universes, franchises are too big to fail.
SoThe Conjuring spinoff Annabelle was poorly received? The studio just made another prequel with a different creative team. So The Conjuring 2 spinoff The Nun was scored low too? Now they’re spinning off The Crocked Manfrom The Conjuring 2to see if he’s got what it takes. The convoy may swerve here and there, but it just keeps on trucking.
Universal has been trying to launch a monster mashup franchise forever. Dracula Untoldwasn’t the series launcher they were hoping for so they tried again with The Mummyas a Tom Cruise auctioneer. Now they’re remodeling their Dark Universe after The Conjuring universe, with a lower budget horror-centric version of The Invisible Man.
Warner Brothers are continuing with the DCEU where Ben Affleck and Jared Leto play Batman and the Joker respectively. Meanwhile they’re producing a backdoor DC universe where director Matt Reeves is recasting Batman and Joaquin Phoenix is playing the Joker. Oblivious to possibility oversaturating the superhero market Warner Brothers is hedging their bets.
Everybody is Eating the Member Berries
Hollywood is learning that extended cinematic universes are hard to build, much harder than resurrecting a dead brand. YouTube is full of Gen Xers who can’t stop talking about the movies they grew up with. Hollywood tried to reboot those classics action adventure flicks for millennials, but none of them took. So producers came up with a new strategy.
Let’s listen in on one of their conversations.
“Can we do anything with the Alienfranchise or did Ridley Scott kill it for good?”
“Prometheusand Alien Covenant didn’t resonate with audiences. The Alien VS. Predator movies are best forgotten. Joss Whedon wiped his hands of Alien Resurrection. Alien 3almost killed David Fincher’s career before it started… But Alienwas a cult classic and Aliensmade James Cameron a household name. If only we could jettison the franchise’s baggage we might be in business.”
“What are you proposing?”
“We make a sequel to Aliens. Bring back all the characters who died off screen in Alien 3, like Hicks and Newt, and pretend none of those other movies even happened.”
“But what about the fans of the sequels, prequels, and spinoffs?”
“They’ll be first in line. Didn’t you see what happened with 2018’s Halloween?”
(Authors note: this actually pitch by Neill Blomkamp is stuck in development hell at the time of this writing, but the Alienfranchise will live on as a mobile game).
Halloween was A Harbinger of Things To Come
TheHalloweenfranchise has gone through many revisions, retcons, and reimaginings since John Carpenter directed the original, but 2018’s Halloweenmarks a trend in franchise film making. It isn’t quite a sequel nor is it a reboot. It’s a do-over sequel, one the wipes all but the 1978 film from the continuity. Technically it’s the third version of Halloween 2.
It sounds like a bold experiment until you realize it was made on a modest 10 million dollar budget. Since Halloweencame out in October it’s earned nearly 160 million, making it the franchise’s biggest opening, the biggest horror opening with a female lead, the biggest opening with a female lead over 55, and the second biggest October opening ever.
Halloween’s success set the stage for every tarnished brand to come back with a fresh coat of paint on, but will it teach Hollywood the right lesson?
1980s Franchises Now and Forever
TheGhostbustersreboot was a hit with critics, it made a profit, but it wasn’t a billion dollar success, so that continuity is dead and director Jason Reitman is going forward with Ghostbusters 3.
TheRoboCopreboot followed a similar trend, which is why Neill Blomkamp is bringing Alex Murphy back to his old continuity in Robocop Returns.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is set return to the role of Conan the Barbarian after the reboot failed to take root.
Linda Hamilton is returning to the role of Sarah Connor in the next Terminatormovie, even after two Game of Thronesactresses have played the character.
My generation’s nostalgic streak is costing mellenials new experiences. Bankrupt brands are taking up too much real estate on the big screen because we’re letting them. If a franchise has had one too many brushes with failure it should go into a state of hibernation for a five year minimum.
The wounds inflicted by Terminator Genisysare still fresh in my mind. It’s too soon for another one.
2018’sHalloweenworked because it was the exception that proved the rule. It was a 10 million dollar low risk experiment that payed off. The estimated budget for Terminator 6 is 255 million dollars (making it the most expensive entry in the series). If it makes anything short of a billion dollars the studio will likely consider it a failure… But they’ll probably make another one anyway. Think about all the sci fi movies the studio could make if they divided up that budget and took some risks on some fresh intellectual properties. That’s why my generation needs to stop giving franchise films infinite retries. Let’s give the next generation something of their own to be nostalgic for when they grow older.
A trailer for the book HE HAS MANY NAMES with blurbs from everyone from Keith Lansdale, writer for The X-Files: Cold Cases comic to Daniel Knauf, creator of HBO’s Carnivàle.
Noelle is a Hollywood transplant that’s been subsisting on instant ramen and false hope. A dubious agent offers her a gig ghostwriting for an author in a hotel where he claims to have had an unholy encounter. With whom you ask? Well… HE HAS MANY NAMES
You’ve just finished the first draft of your story and you can’t wait to revisit it, but when you do it feels like a blotted mess. It’s cluttered with character descriptions, meandering subplots, and quirky observations. You know you need to make some deep cuts, but you don’t know where exactly.
Here are some of the things that can bog down your story and what you can do to tidy them up.
Chekhov’s gun is a principle in storytelling based on Anton Chekhov’s quote, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”
Every setup should pay off.
An author with a strictly structured story won’t have problems with this. They’ll check their math and know where everything fits before they start.
I like to write with a loose blueprint so I can discover things as I go. The problem is I’m more likely to jam my stories with impulse setups, like little mysteries I think are cool in the moment, but are often forgotten.
If you write by the seat of your pants color-code the paragraphs that contain setups within your document. This will make editing easier later on. Once you’ve finished your first draft go to these setups and ask yourself, “Did I pay this off?” If not give it the ax.
Setups that Suck as Scenes
Have you ever seen a film where everything slows down to draw attention to specific detail? Perhaps the hero’s mother mentions that her daughter used to love diving before her father died. Everyone in the audience nods their heads knowing the hero’s diving background will come up again. Now that heroic plunge might be a heart wrenching moment later on, but why did the setup have to feel so inorganic and superfluous?
If you’re setting something up to payoff later make sure the scene is entertaining in the here and now. Those scenes are where you’re most likely to lose your audience. Put something intriguing on the surface before you challenge people to read between the lines.
Try using micro setups and micro payoffs. Use the first few scenes to setup your overarching mysteries, but also setup something that will pay off in that scene. Show readers that you’ll reward them for paying attention.
Early writers feel a need to convey a passage of time by padding out their story. They show characters entering and exiting scenes. They come into conversations as they begin and exit with the goodbyes. They write transitions between locations, as if travel details are obligatory for believability.
They forget that time jumps are part of storytelling, that they don’t need to show the process that led a character from point A to B to C, so long as A connects to C in some way.
Rather than padding out the passage of time you should find clever ways to convey it.
Set a murder out on a frozen lake. Set the next scene in the springtime when fishermen find a bloated body.
Give a character a flesh wound in one scene show it scabbed over in the next.
Put your hero behind the wheel at sunset. Have an ominous moon hanging overhead when they arrive at their destination.
Arbitrary Emotional Cool Down
As a horror writer I try to consider how much emotional torture readers can take before they fling my book into the fireplace. If I just put the reader through a sequence of high tension and mounting dread, I want to ease off the throttle and give them a moment to breathe, to let them grieve the loss of a character, to allow the scales of hope and dread to balance back out.
My natural instinct will be to write a soft uneventful scene with some comic relief and a few minutes of character musings.
The thing is every scene should meet certain qualifications to justify their inclusion. There should be a conflict, something that advances the plot and reveals character details.
My first attempts at breather scenes eased back too much. They were boring. Not every conflict should be a matter of life and death, but there should always be something at stake.
It’s important to give readers an emotional cool down, an eye in the storm of blood, but you need to make these breaks eventful in their own way.
These seemingly innocuous scenes should plant things that will factor in later. Every story should see its hero go through a profound personal change. Now is a good time to check in on what their situation is teaching them. Might they learn a lesson here that could be essential to their survival? Fill these low tension scenes with meaningful developments.
When I wrote He Has Many Names I spent a lot of time researching hell and the devil. It colored the way I saw the world and tuned my ear to devilish things. Whenever I heard an idiom related to Satan I thought, “Now I’ve got to shoehorn that in.” I felt a compulsion to add Satanic puns in places the story didn’t need them. Fortunately my editors caught what I was doing and put a stop to it.
Solution: If you’re writing a vampire story you didn’t need to wedge every Twilight quip you can think of in. Just because youe subject is a well-trodden topic doesn’t mean you need to reference every incarnation of it. Over-referencing is a rookie mistake.
William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”
My first drafts have a lot of darlings, little wordplay witticisms that break up the action. I like to write in the first person, but my narrators can be overtly clever, snarky, and mean spirited.
I find most of my clever one-liners wear on me after a few edits. By the final draft my narrators are a lot more likeable.
I put my darlings into storage. It makes it easier to cut them. When a quirky line breaks up the flow of a scene I copy and paste it into its own document. Maybe I’ll re-gift it to a character who can wear it better later.
When editing ask yourself if that extra character detail sparks joy, if your settings are cluttered with too many descriptions, and if all your plot points are load-bearing.
Sometimes when a story feels like it’s missing something it’s because it has too many things it doesn’t need and the parts that matter are underdeveloped.
Stop hording unnecessary details. Every aspect of your story should serve the central theme. If they don’t then you’re going to need to tidy that shit up.
Welcome to Monster Mingle, a place where urban legends find romance, where full moons lead to fuller hearts, and all the thirsty singles have fangs. This is how it usually works: illustrator Bryan Politte comes up with the creatures and I (Drew Chial horror author) give them a backstory. This time Bryan got the character Matilda MacDonald from my book HE HAS MANY NAMES.
Watch out for Matilda. She’s an unreliable narrator. She’ll use scripture to get inside your head. She’ll try to temp you. Don’t let your guard down, because she is not the devil you know.
I was starry eyed when I arrived in the silver city, thinking I could make it on my charm and my wit. I floated my résumé all over, inquired about every position, but no one knew where I fit in. I wandered the chrome crosswalks and sterling skyways for days. I was on my way out the pearly gates when a messenger came for me.
“Hail, thou art highly favored.”
He told me I’d landed an interview with the biggest player in town.
The Entrepreneur’s reputation preceded him. He was an industrialist, a philanthropist, and a visionary with the business acumen to keep the silver city running.
The Entrepreneur wasted no time showing me to my office. He needed a spokesperson ASAP. He had seven days to roll out his most ambitious project yet. He gave me a wardrobe for the week, adorned each outfit in precious stones, and dubbed me, “The seal of perfection. A startlet who will shine through morning.”
With the plans for the universe stretched across our arms we became a power couple. We invested in atoms, watched the interest build into molecules, and later elements. We shipped dark matter, hydrogen, and helium throughout the cosmos and laid the foundations for the constellations. We built a real estate empire from time and space itself.
I assumed the Entrepreneur meant it for the residents of the silver city, a reward for their investment, but he had other plans. It turns out there was a pet project he’d been laboring on, with his petri dishes and his eyedroppers. He called it, “Life.” While each Angel was hand crafted and meticulously detailed, life was capable of sustaining growth with minimal oversight. It was with thishe meant to populate his planets.
When creating humanity the Entrepreneur used resources I didn’t know we had: genitals, free will, and death.
I didn’t get it.
Why would an omniscient being give people the power to choose if he already knew the outcome? Either he was leaving them to struggle for his own amusement or he wasn’t that omniscient to begin with.
My pride got the better of me. I told the Entrepreneur the project would lead to chaos and a third of the board agreed. Furious, the Entrepreneur cast the lot of us out.
Life Changing Event
I plummeted into the mouth of a cavernous pit. The walls scrapped the jewels from my outfit. Gemstones flew in all directions. My breastplate burst, my braces buckled, and my gauntlets were both ground down to grain. I crashed through sheets of ice and landed upon a bed of stalagmites.
When I came to I found my skin had taken on a bluish hue, my hair was slick with frost, and my eyebrows were lined with icicles. I thought it was strange that I could see my own breath, but then I noticed the length of silver around my right index finger. The last piece of my armor was shining in the dark.
I teetered to my feet and the ring glowed brighter. I limped toward the wall and a stinging sensation surged down my arm. The ring was trying to warn me about something in the limestone. I waved it around until I came upon a series of ridges unlike any rock formation I’d known. When I touched it told me that it was the fossilized remains of something called a trilobite. The creature claimed to have dominated the seas for hundreds of millions of years. I told the trilobite I helped found the universe only a week ago.
The trilobite said, “If that’s so then where did I come from?”
I ventured further into the dark to see what else was hiding there. The pit was littered with bones: great leviathan skeletons, ribs arching like the roofs, skulls yawning open as if to drink the ocean. They looked upon me with hollow pleading eyes and every time I tapped them with my silver they told me what they were. These were the titans of industry that came before: The Uranides, the Vanir, and the Great Old ones. Azathoth, dethroned from the seat of chaos. Hastur, shut out of Carcosa where the stars shine black.
Each one had a similar story. The Entrepreneur had been rolling out beta universes, with each new version he took on a partner, and when the rollout was complete the partner ended up here. I was the latest in a long line of suckers.
You’d think that misery would love the company, but I was all the more heart broken.
The Entrepreneur had taken almost everything, but I still had that shard of silver on my finger. I used it to cut bricks from the bones and mortar from their marrow. I built a home from those who came before and in my den I listened to their whispers. They taught me the secrets of their runes, cosmic currencies, and investment strategies. I used that knowledge to cross over into the Entrepreneur’s latest venture.
My Hobbies and Interests
I had no part in getting Adam and Eve evicted from the Garden of Eden. That was a snake that got jilted when Adam wouldn’t choose it to be his mate.
Most of my appearances in the Old Testament were mistranslations. This is what happens when you name someone after the Hebrew word for “adversary” and then you need to use the same word to describe others. People get confused.
Although I’ll admit the book of Job was all me.
I’d been wandering the earth trying get a startup going, but my hands were bound by regulations.
A plague spread throughout the land and I snuck back into the Silver City amongst a wave of refugees. With some fancy footwork I made it all the way back to the Entrepreneur’s office. He was scrolling through the feed from his ticker tape machine, fat and rosy on humanity’s adoration and belief. He didn’t seem too surprised to see me.
“Where did you come from?”
It took all of my self-control not to drive my silver ring through my palm. “I’ve been roaming the earth. Going back and forth on it.”
He nodded, unphased I’d scurried my way out of the pit.
“Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”
I had considered Job.
“Does Job love you for nothing? Check out his palatial estate, his bountiful lands, and livestock empire. Not to mention the ten children that will ensure his legacy carries on for generations. You gave him a good return on his investment. Take it back up and he’d curse you where you stand.”
The Entrepreneur stroked his beard. “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man do not lay a finger.”
I gave Sabean raiders a hot tip on where Job kept his oxen. Then I rained commits on his sheep and dropped a roof on his children.
Job, the poor sucker, did exactly what I wanted him to. He fell to his knees and said, “The lord has given and the lord has taken away. May the name of the lord be praised.”
I returned to the Silver City to find the Entrepreneur wiping a tear of joy from his cheek. He was tickled pink.
I reached into the pile of ticker tape that had accumulated on the floor, pretending to care about things I already knew.
“Job still has his health. Take that and the praise train will roll right off its tracks.”
The Entrepreneur smirked, lifted a few more sanctions and I covered Job in lesions.
Job’s neighbors had heard about his misfortune. They paid him a visit to reaffirm his faith, but he had come around to my way of thinking.
How could such bad things happen to a good person? If the Entrepreneur was all-powerful then he couldn’t be all good, especially if he was trying to prove something to someone. That just made him an all-powerful asshole.
Job cursed the day he was born, gave into despair, and begged the Entrepreneur for death. His neighbors tried to rationalize the Entrepreneur’s mysterious ways, but they were arguing from ignorance, and Job knew it.
“Let the Almighty answer me!”
The Entrepreneur had been following the conversation from his desk and decided to make an entrance. He split the sky open to grant his investors an audience and what did he have to say to them?
“Where were you when I laid the earths foundations? Tell me, who fixed its measurements? Surely you know who stretched a measuring line across it?”
Of course Iknow. And it wasn’t a measuring line. It was tape. Had the planet held such little regard in his mind that he thought it was flat?
The Entrepreneur bullied Job into submission and doubled the man’s losses as compensation, which just proved my point. His investors were only as loyal as their assets.
My Intimate Details
I’ve convinced many Jobs to pull out of the Entrepreneur’s enterprise, but it took finesse to get them to invest in mine. The Entrepreneur’s PR department has turned my brand toxic, blaming me for the Inquisition, the Witch Trails, Christ, even the Catholic Abuse Scandal.
When missionaries came to Greece they saw idols of the Greek God Pan with his horns, hooves, and hard-on and they felt threatened. They could’ve told stories of a faun who lured children into caves so he could eat them (you know, use their imaginations) instead they merely passed his fashion sense onto me. They swapped my blush with a beard, my long legs with matted wool, and my firm butt with a sad droopy tail. Then they handed me Hade’s pitchfork for good measure. “Here, hold this.”
Despite all the evidence that Pan was another entity, from another mythology, his likeness was linked to me. Fine. While the faithful looked over their shoulders for a goatee and red complexion I was free to walk among them.
The more insidious my methods got the more grandiose my depictions became. When John the Revelator was exiled to the island of Patmos he tried his hand at writing. He had a strong premise with the Apocalypse, but he did what most first timers do and let the concept devolve into lists: seven seals, seven trumpets, seven spiritual beings, with seven bowls.
Had John been a better storyteller he might have imagined Armageddon, not as battle of swords, but of wits, where competing philosophies debated for the fate of humanity. Alas, John was more interested in who would win in a fight: the Archangel Michael or a seven-headed dragon.
After John, Dante and Milton wrote some fine fan fiction. I liked how Dante populated the Inferno with his personal enemies and how Milton made me a freedom fighter that could give a good speech, but I was never up to my tits in any ice nor would I claim Death and Sin among my brain children.
I never did half of what I got credit for. I never stole tools from the Silver Foundry to make a pact with a blacksmith. I never dared a soldier to wear a bearskin for seven years, and I never took a small town farmer to trial for his soul. I have never lorded over any flies. Horseshoes don’t scare me, and black cats do not answer to me. They’re cats. They answer to nobody.
I wish I were as powerful as people believe. I wish I’d shined as bright as Venus in the morning. I wish I’d had a penthouse in Babylon. I wish my corporate headquarters had floors based on sins, but I have to budget my expenditures same as anyone.
These false etymologies have followed me for centuries. I used to agonize over every erroneous association. Now I’ve learned the value of good branding. Products live and die by consumers’ belief in them. I’ve leaned to lean into humanity’s misconceptions, because the more they fear me the more they believe.
When the clergy made up stories to fill seats I used their sermons as brainstorming sessions. I jotted notes over old hymns, tore out the pages, and slid them into my corset.
This wasn’t merely opposition research I was insider trading.
I’ve held many titles over the years. These days I go by Matilda MacDonald: Agent to the Stars.
Matildais derived from the High German “maht” and “hild” meaning “strong in battle.” MacDonald is a modified version of Dòmhnall, which means “World ruler.” My name states my intentions while conjuring images of telekinetic little girls and fast food chains.
In the 80s, I made myself over as one of Patrick Nagel’s art deco women. I wanted to embody the iconography of that era of greed. I already had the snow-white skin, raven black hair, full lips, and stone cut cheekbones. All I needed was the pixie haircut, eye shadow, and pants suit wardrobe.
I’ve kept the same form for a generation and low and behold greed is still in fashion.
My Perfect Match
While my investments are in the markets of man, my heart belongs to the arts to the music-makers and the dreamers of dreams. Kings rule nations, but creators rule minds. All of my lovers possess a wealth of imagination, that je ne sais quoi that captures my attention.
Over the centuries I’ve played patron to many a prodigy. I massaged Nicolo Paganini’s joints so he could play violin, taught Giuseppe Tartini my favorite sonata, gave Christoph Haizmann visions worth painting, and tuned Robert Johnson’s guitar so he could always find the right strings.
I see the same spark in you.
You’ve tried so hard to make it as an artist. You have the tenacity and the drive. Too bad the free content movement devalued your medium, your ability never caught up with your tastes, and your style was never in fashion.
If you stay on the path the Entrepreneur has set you’ll always be on the outside looking in. Your day job will never help you sleep at night. Your inspiration will be reduced to a nagging voice in the back of your mind. You will grow cynical watching fame go to vapid, beautiful, superficial people. You’ll die knowing your intimate thoughts will never connect with a broader audience, search engines will bury your legacy, and your work will go undiscovered.
But not if I have anything to say about it.
I heard the prayers you whispered to bathroom stalls, showerheads, and pillows. I heard the long-winded confessions that shot out of you like steam. I heard you scratching at death’s door. I know what’s it like to have lofty ambitions, to think your ascent was a forgone conclusion only to wind up scraping yourself off the ground.
I’ve chosen you because you’re not destined for great things, but you should be.
My ideal date
In the Richmond District of San Francisco, there’s a yellow duplex on California St. between 24thand 23rdAve. The address should read: 6118, 6120, and 6122, but someone has pried off all of the 6s from the units.
On special nights, under the light of a blood red moon, the edifice shifts. A person with the spark of inspiration will see the black Victorian home that once stood there.
If you’re ready to live the life you deserve walk up the stoop and open the front door.
Don’t let Togar scare you. He may be a lion, but he’s as friendly as they come. Take hold of his mane and follow him through the black velvet curtains down into the basement.
Don’t worry that the ritual chamber hasn’t been used in years. Cross the cobwebs between the candelabra and the pipe organ, past the bed of nails, toward the altar. Consider the wall of ceremonial daggers. The blades are made from ivory, flint, silver, and gold. I trust you’ll know which hilt to pull. When you do a door will open revealing a secret corridor. The corridor is made of seven artist spaces.
The first is filled with bookshelves lined with leather bound first editions.
The second: painted canvases stretched end to end.
The third: drafting tables jutting out from channels.
The forth: a cube of soundproof acoustic panels.
The fifth: the many monitors of an editing bay.
The sixth: cryptic code on digital displays.
The seventh chamber, at the heart of this tomb, is the devil’s den: my master bedroom. I’ll be waiting on the futon beneath the sheer red canopy. Why don’t you join me when you’re ready to live deliciously?
There are many ways to enter into a binding bargain, but I find that this one is the most fun.
Welcome to Monster Mingle, a place for urban legends to find romance, where full moons lead to fuller hearts, and all the thirsty singles have fangs. This is how it works: illustrator Bryan Politte comes up with the creatures and I (Drew Chial horror author) give them a backstory.
Meet the third. He’s a punk, a vegan, and one other thing. Just wait until you get to the end before you decide if you’re smitten.
Avid readers have stronger imaginations than people who experience stories exclusively through film and TV. As much as I love those mediums they’re made for passive consumption. Books put readers in the director’s chair. Sure the author chronicles the events, but its up to readers to visualize them. Readers have to cast the characters, provide the wardrobe, build the sets, and block out the scenes. The author does everything they can to make their story an enjoyable read, but the reader has to meet them halfway. Horror authors exploit this relationship by baiting readers into picturing their worst fears.
Have you ever noticed how the tension in horror movies deflates the more you know about the monster? The more you see it, the more you understand its rules and where it came from the less you’re frightened. The monster is less of a living breathing part of your mind and more of a static thing on screen. Suddenly there’s a barrier between the two of you keeping things safe and boring.
That’s why many horror authors never show the monster. They leave the audience to do all the heavy lifting. This approach works well on people with active imaginations, but readers who don’t feel like engineering their own bogymen feel cheated.
Horror writers need to strike a balance. Here are a few of my favorite techniques for doing just that.
Pose a Compelling Mystery
A well-placed spark will lure readers, like moths to flames, to their dread ridden doom. Pose a supernatural situation that’s simple to grasp, but hint at an explanation that could only be an awe-inspiring revelation.
A young musician is walking home when he’s attacked by a monster he can only see out of the corner of his eye: a wrinkled giant in tatters that may or may not be its own dead flesh. The monster unhinges its jaw, lets out a groan deeper than a cruise ship horn, and disappears. When the musician gets home he finds he can no longer play guitar. Turns out there are reports all over the city of artists experiencing similar attacks and losing their inspiration in the process.
An isolated woodland town is besieged by living nightmares, each one seemingly built to prey upon the resident’s worst fears. While most of these figures have the intended effect others appear strangely tone deaf, almost comical, suggesting the hand of an agent that doesn’t fully comprehend its audience.
Expect the audience to read your story over several sessions. Use those interruptions to plant ideas. Little mysteries for readers to mull over and leave them dangling at the end of each chapter. The best nightmare fuel is subtle. It works its way into readers’ minds slowly until they see their daily routine through the filter of your imaginings.
Leave Evidence of the Evil
The monster need not take the stage to own it. There are many ways to feel its presence. Leave an orgy of evidence, and readers will craft a composite of the creature themselves.
Picture this.It’s 1892. You open your chamber door to find it skewered. Something rammed the wood with enough force to leave hollow voids on the both ends of the knocker. You raise a candle to find craters leading up the cobblestones, and ripples in the puddles. Most of the oil lanterns have been snuffed out and the one that remains is shattered, belching flames.
This torch renders anything beyond it imperceivable, but you know there’s something out there weaving in and out of the tree line. Why else would the owls hold their tongues and the crickets yield the night to the wind?
You feel cold narrow eyes moving up your nightgown, pausing on your belly and settling upon your neck.
Picture this.It’s 2292. You’re aboard a long-range starship. The fluid drains from your stasis chamber, revealing fracture lines across your enclosure. You call out to the computer, “Open tube.”
The mechanism jerks hard, shattering the glass, spewing shards into the corridor. The lights that encircle the honeycomb hall blink red, some flicker out of phase with the others. Stepping over the jagged fragments of your chamber you find a bubbling black substance eating at the grates.
There’s a long gash looping around the walls, leading to a pitch-black med bay. Something long and chrome shoots out of the darkness. A blood speckled gurney lands at your feet.
Have Characters Test Theories
For me the creepiest scene in Paranormal Activityis when Micha sets out prove the presence visiting his partner Katie is physical. Micha spreads baby powder down the hall leading to the bedroom and aims a camera in that direction. That night the couple is awoken by a commotion. Micha finds talon prints leading up to the bed and streaks in the powder.
What I love about this scene is that is confirms the supernatural situation without demystifying the creature. It raises more questions than it answers.
Describe the Monster as Indescribable
Did you ever write an “exquisite corpse” story back in grade school? One student would write a sentence and pass it to the desk behind them. Horror writers can play that game with their readers. Here’s how. Just describe the effect the monster has on witnesses without revealing anything about its shape. This technique doesn’t rely on smoke and mirrors. Your monster isn’t skulking in the shadows. It’s just so overwhelmingly hideous that it’s beyond description. It’s maddening.
“What did the beast look like?”
“Do you not see? It turned Byron’s hair white.”
This was a favorite device of gothic horror writers.
H.P. Lovecraft referred to so many of his terrors as “Indescribable.”
Edgar Allan Poe referred to the sights beyond his chamber door as “Phantasmagorical.”
Meaning: a dreamlike and deceptive appearance that changes upon further examination
Gothic horror writers used the neurosis of their characters to illustrate the monster’s grandeur.
Give a Peak by Proxy
The hit Netflix film Bird Boxis about monsters with the power to drive people to suicide at the mere sight of them, most people that is. The monsters have a different effect on people who are already mad. Insane individuals feel compelled to worship the monsters, with the ferocity of cult members, corralling survivors and forcing them to bear witness.
The audience never gets a direct look at the monsters, but one tainted character gives us a peak. He lays out a series of twisted tentacle-riddled portraits on the coffee table. These rough Lovecraftian rendering gives us a sense of what awaits Sandra Bullock just beyond the blinds.
In Paul Tremblay’s “The Cabin at the End of the World” a character is struck in the back of the head and spends the rest of the story with a traumatic head injury. Sunlight gives him terrible migraines until he starts to see figures in the light. It’s ambiguous whether or not these figures are influencing the events of the story or if they’re a brought on by the bump on his noggin.
My favorite monster stories utilize strategic ambiguity. For every question the author answers they pose two more. That way when the monster does step into the light it retains its mystique. It’s the enigma of the entity that gives it free reign over the audience’s imagination.
The horror writer is the architect of shadows. The readers are interim landlords. We lease them the long dark hall and they fill it with their nightmares. Eventually we move our own terrifying tenants into these atmospheric locations, but only after they’ve been lived in.