Stories with exceptional world building stick with you long after you put them down. They invite you on detours to take in the surroundings: the blimp filled skyline, the gear filled horizon, the towers of steam. These things leave an impression. Stories that veer away from their champions to explore strange civilizations, with nonsensical norms, invite us to image how we’d fit in. Universes with different natural laws, where magic is real and sorcerers can recreate their results lead us to conduct our own thought experiments.
Stories with exceptional world building take up prime real estate in our imaginations. Their authors build the steel frames of civilizations, but leave us with enough ambiguity to fill in with our own details. That’s why people keep returning to the shires of Middle Earth, the dunes of Arrakis, and the rose fields of the Dark Tower.
This phenomenon transcends mediums, down yellow brick roads, through galaxies far far away, and even virtual Matrixes. In fact one of my favorite imagined universes comes from a videogame series called Silent Hill.
I want to explore what makes these games so haunting and what they can teach writers about the importance of world building.
What is Silent Hill?
For those of you who’ve never been to Silent Hill it’s a ghost town in rural Maine. A place where the mist hangs low and ash falls like snow. A mining community that went up in smoke when a coal deposit ignited, perhaps from a accident, perhaps from a ritual sacrifice gone wrong. The fires rage to this day, pumping plumes of smoke through cracks in the street, concealing the town’s tragic history beneath a fog of toxic fumes.
While other ghost towns are a draw for urban explorers Silent Hill attracts a different type of visitor.
Silent Hill through James Sunderland’s Eyes
James Sunderland receives a cryptic letter from his wife Mary, inviting him to join her in their “special place.” The problem is their special place is in Silent Hill at the heart of a burning hellscape. The bridges there have collapsed. Highway patrol officers guard the roads into town. Oh and Mary has been dead for three years. James goes anyway, parking at a rest stop, and trekking through the wilderness until he finds himself in Silent Hill.
On his way James encounters Angela and Eddie, others like him, summoned by the ghosts of their pasts. They mutter to themselves, thinking aloud on past sins. They all seems too far-gone to make for helpful companions.
Shortly after finding a radio James encounters a figure in a tunnel. It staggers into the light revealing its arms are bound in a straight jacket of flesh, its feet are fused with stiletto heels, and its face is featureless apart from a long zipper leading to a gash from which it spews acid vomit. The creature’s very presence makes the radio burst with static.
From here on James embarks on violent journey into the fog, through boarded up buildings, rust strewn corridors, and unspeakable horrors.
Battered and shook James makes it to Mary’s special place in the park, where he encounters Maria, Mary’s physical double and emotional opposite.
This is when story takes a turn for the abstract and James starts to question the authenticity of what he sees. Just as the town reveals its darkness James reveals the darkness within himself.
We learn Mary had a terminal illness and spent her final days in hospice, where she grew hostile to her husband. James responded by drinking himself into a deep depression. He should’ve known his wife was dead when he came into town, because he’s the one who killed her. James smothered Mary with a pillow. He’s been in denial ever since he entered Silent Hill. His journey through the city mirrored the stages of grief.
It turns out the monsters are manifestations of things James has tried to keep buried. The knife wielding nurses in their low cut shirts and short skirts represent his pent up sexual animosity, as do the leggy mannequins chasing him through dark hotel rooms, but the ultimate manifestation of James’s repressed feeling comes in the form Pyramid Head.
Pyramid Head is a giant with a Judas Cradle on its shoulders, a long apron stitched together from human skin, dragging a sword the size of a surfboard across the floor. This unrelenting boogieman represents James’s desire to punish himself. Continue reading How Silent Hill Inspired My Writing→
MeetNoelle, a Hollywood transplant who’s been subsisting on instant ramen and false hope. She’s on the verge of moving back into her mother’s trailer when her agent convinces her to take a meeting at the Oralia Hotel. Enchanted by the art deco atmosphere Noelle signs a contract without reading the fine print.
Now she has one month to pen a novel sequestered in a fantasy suite where a hack writer claims he had an unholy encounter. With whom you ask? Well, he has many names: Louis Cypher, Bill Z. Bub, Kel Diablo. The Devil.
Noelle is skeptical, until she’s awoken by a shadow figure with a taste for souls.
Desperate to make it Noelle stays on, shifting the focus of her story to these encounters. Her investigations take her through the forth wall and back again until she’s blurred the line between reality and what’s written. Is there a Satanic conspiracy, is it a desperate author’s insanity, or something else entirely?
Clash BOOKS invites you enter a zone in-between afternoon and midnight, a place if unnamed does not violate of copyright. You’ll find it in a tome of forbidden knowledge, a book called He Has Many Names.
I’d been dabbing my neck all afternoon, feeling the hive begin to blister, then pop, and seep down my back. I was allergic to sweat, but I couldn’t help but run my fingers through my hair and smear it everywhere.
Agent Sunderland suffered no such compulsions. He’d spent the morning cooped up in the van with his suit coat buttoned the entire time. He didn’t mind sitting in a leather swivel chair, wearing giant head cans, or guzzling coffee like it was Gatorade. The man was a cold-blooded reptile with his hatchet face and beady eyes.
Agent Reese on the other hand had a head like a cinderblock, and no neck to speak of. He wore a pair of shoulder holsters over his pit stains. There was a Glock in one and silver flask in the other. The flask was covered in Celtic crosses.
“What is that?”
Agent Reese lifted his arm as if he needed to check. “A flask.”
“What’s in it?”
“Should I have some of that?”
Agent Sunderland shook his head. “She’d smell it on you.”
I itched the path they’d shaved down my chest, feeling the rash of ingrown hairs, the gaffer tape pinching the skin. “But she won’t notice this?”
Agent Reese snapped. “She will if you keep picking at it.”
Agent Sunderland guided my hand from chest to my knee. “Breathe. She can’t see through clothing, she can’t smell fear, and she can’t hear what you’re thinking.”
“How do you know that?”
Agent Reese peeled the cover off the van’s ancient surveillance equipment. “This is not our first rodeo.”
“Is that a reel to reel? What government agency did you say you worked for again?”
Agent Reese put a reel on the machine. “We didn’t.”
“What are you agents of exactly?”
“The lord.” Agent Reese threaded tape from one reel to the other.
I reached for the latch for the door. Agent Sunderland caught my hand. He had the same Celtic cross tattooed on the back of his hand.
“You saw what she did to your friend.”
The door to Jamie’s studio apartment was wide open. Signs of a struggle would’ve been an understatement. The mirrors were shattered. The drawers were smashed to splinters, and there were paperbacks everywhere.
As for Jamie his body was contorted on the kitchen table, arms locked in place, back arched in an upward facing dog position, head craned all the way back until his neck snapped. The screenplay he’d been toiling on for as long as I’d know him was rolled up and crammed down his throat.
Agent Sunderland put his hand on my shoulder. He squeezed it like he was giving a strong handshake, a show of sympathy from someone who’d read about it in books. “This town is filled with artists just like Jamie, bright kids with dreams of making it. The only thing between her and them is sitting in this van.”
I shook my head. “Pitching a screenplay is scary enough on its own, add this on top of that and…” I trailed off.
Agent Sunderland elbowed me, another show affection that didn’t suit him. “Good, use that fear.”
I hung my head between my knees. “If she’s licking her lips at the sight of my neck I’m going to lose the plot.”
Agent Reese scoffed. “You don’t think she’s a vampire, do you?”
Jamie had dragged me to a networking function for writers. There were whispers that a produced would be hiding among us. Matilda stuck out like a sore thumb with her leather lined suit, jet-black pixie hair, and fierce model features. Her skin was porcelain white and her eyes were so brown they might as well have been black. She wore an armored ring that ran up to her knuckle. When she reached out to shake my hand her palm was ice cold.
I scanned the van, shifting my gaze from one agent of God to the other. “What is she?”
Agent Reese lowered an eyebrow. “Not a vampire.”
Agent Sunderland adjusted the collar of the all black ensemble they’d fitted me with. “Listen. Don’t worry about your pitch. Let her do most of the talking.” He slid a pair of fine Italian loafers onto my feet.
“Just what the hell do you think she is?”
“Exactly.” Agent Sunderland smiled as he pressed the toes of the to check the fit. “Just remember, if you feel you are in any real danger, say the phrase, ‘Eye of the needle’ and we’ll come rushing in.”
“Eye of the needle, as in ‘It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God?’”
“That’ll be hard to work into casual conversation.”
“Which is why we won’t miss it.”
“And why can’t I wear my sneakers?”
Agent Reese motioned out the window to the line leading around the block to the bouncers at the door. One was shining a light on IDs the other was scanning the patrons from top to bottom.
My forthcoming novel He Has Many Namesshould be arriving just in time for Halloween. It’s the story of a ghostwriter sequestered in a haunted hotel with one month to pen a novel. The hero, Noelle Blackwood, is a horror writer who knows her way around a scary story. Her imagination has explored every haunted hotel in pop culture. She has run a black light over the tropes and clichés residing in every room.
I’ve armed Noelle with all of my influences and she is proud to wear them on her sleeve, name-dropping the films, books, and paintings that inspired He Has Many Names. This way I could pay homage to my influences while promising to take the story someplace different.
Over the next few months I’m going to take those influences to show and tell. Let’s start by talking about the films that inspired He Has Many Names.
Mike Enslin has spent his career trying to prove there’s an afterlife, searching for ghoulies and ghosties in the hope of proving his daughter is in a better place. His quest has turned him into cynical critic of haunted hotspots. At book readings he tells his audience he’s never seen a ghost and it wasn’t for lack of trying. One day he receives a postcard that says, “DON’T STAY IN ROOM 1408 OF THE DOLPHIN HOTEL.” Mike adds the numbers together and gets 13. It’s a cute dare.
Mike reserves the room, much to the dismay of the hotel owner who warms him of all the natural and unnatural deaths that have occurred in there.
What happens in room 1408 of The Dolphin Hotel and room 1901 of The Oralia in He Has Many Namesare very different. Still the heroes of both tales have quite a few things in common. Both characters are fascinated with the paranormal and yet they’re both intrinsically skeptical.
Mike Enslin, John Cusack’s character in 1408, has spent years seeking proof of life after death. It’s left him jaded. He sees how people deceive themselves.
Noelle Blackwood, the hero of He Has Many Names, was diagnosed with a fantasy prone personality at a young age. She had to learn to differentiate between a set of complex maladaptive daydreams and reality. She developed her skepticism as a coping mechanism.
As for the rooms themselves 1408 and 1901 have little else in common. Once the digital clock starts counting down from 59:99 1408 has a clear mission: kill its guest in under an hour. Room 1901 of The Oralia, a forest themed fantasy suite, has a far more mysterious purpose.
The fifth season of FX’s hit series takes place in an art deco dump called The Cortez. This setting inspired by a real hotel called The Cecil. The Cecil was a historic Hollywood fixture, but it was plagued with violence, suicides, and unexplained happenings.
In the first chapter of He Has Many NamesI wanted readers to think they were walking into a similar situation.
Upon entering The Oralia Noelle is certain it is one of the last bastions of elegance and class from an era when there was still tinsel in tinsel town.
Then she scans a plaque on the front desk to find The Oralia was founded in 2008.
Most haunted hotel stories depend on the hotel’s history to build tension. American Horror Story made the Cortez’s founder a serial killer like H.H. Holmes the dreaded devil in the white city. I wanted to subvert this expectation by making The Oralia a new building with an art deco design, a forgery of an era none of its guests had ever lived to see.
As an anthology show every season of American Horror Story explores a different subgenre. These twelve episodes were packed with a greatest hits mix of the haunted hotel genre. People are trapped in the walls. The mattresses are possessed. There are ghosts, vampires, witches, and a killer with multiple personalities. It has everything and the kitchen sink.
SinceHe Has Many Namesis all about toying with expectations this season was a great refresher on what’s been done and how to take that in a different direction.
Heidi hosts a late radio show where her experimental tastes are uninhabited by advertisers. She receives a mysterious seven-inch in the mail, a single by The Lords of Salem. Shortly after putting the record on she has visions of the town’s past. She sees silhouettes in the vacant apartment down the hall and finds herself sleepwalking in that direction later on. Is Heidi dreaming or are her landlords grooming her to be sacrificed? Are these visions of witch hangings hallucinations or memories? Is that apartment empty or is it a portal into the grand halls of hall?
This is Rob Zombie’s detour from directing slashers to something avant-garde. It’s slow-burning thriller. While it isn’t a complex story on paper, Zombie pulls viewers in with long patient takes through atmospheric set pieces, and twisted psychedelic visuals. Sheri Moon Zombie’s turn as Heidi is equally mesmerizing. All and all I think it’s an underrated work of pure paranormal paranoia.
I tried to capture the same hypnotizing tone throughout the nightmare sequences ofHe Has Many Names.
(SPOILER WARNING: the next few paragraphs contains spoilers for both The Sentineland the ABC drama Lost.)
Of all the pieces of media that directly inspired the TV show LostI’d say The Sentinelis one of the biggest. On Losta group of castaways crash land on an island where they meet Jacob the island’s mysterious protector. It takes seven seasons for Jacob to reveal the island’s true purpose. It’s a cork that prevents the chaos of hell from spilling out onto the world. That chaos has seeped out onto the island in the form of a smoke monster; a monster with the ability to assume the form of anyone who has died. The castaways learn that it’s no accident they crash landed on the island. They are candidates, carefully selected to take over Jacob’s duties as the island’s protector.
That’s the plot of 1977’s The Sentinelif you swap the island for an apartment building and Jacob for a blind priest. Alison Parker is a young fashion model that moves into the building only to be dogged by the hordes of hell. She’s given the same choice the castaways on Lostgot: take up permanent residence and keep the legions of hell from bleeding through.
FromDante’s Infernoto Buffy the Vampire SlayerI’ve always liked the idea that there are Hellmouths hidden throughout the world.
A Hellmout may or may not feature prominently in He Has Many Names.
The tagline on the poster is You think you know the story. There have been so many cabin in the woods horror movies fans ought to know the trappings of the subgenre by now: a group of spring-breakers venture into the wilderness, enter a cabin with no modern convenience, explore the cellar, and watch the wrong film reel, or play with the wrong puzzle sphere, or read from the wrong diary. They wake the legions of the undead and get picked off one at a time. First goes the slut, then the burnout, then the jock, then the nerd, and ultimately the virgin.
Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard add depth to these deaths by giving them a greater purpose. It turns out every character who has ever died on screen was an offering to elder gods slumbering deep beneath the earth. They spare us from an annual apocalypse so long as their appetites have been satiated.
When I wrote He Has Many NamesI pretty much wanted to make Cabin in the Woods in a hotel, to play with the audience’s expectation and I spin them all around. You think you know this haunted hotel. You think you recognize this deal with the devil, but there’s another element at play.
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is tasked with adapting a popular bestseller. Instead he pens a film about his own existential crisis trying to adapt it, blurring the line between autobiography and fantasy.
This is one of the best examples of a story where the writer breaks the fourth wall to reveal the process that went into what we’re watching. The hero criticizes the cheap emotional manipulation techniques in western storytelling right before embracing them.
He Has Many Namesis filled with meta moments just like this, including a scene where a peeved publisher criticizes half of the story that we’ve just read.
Bear with me here. When I was a kid the scene where Bastion realizes that the book he’s reading just referred to him, the reader, as a pivotal character in the story blew my young mind. It was then when I realized how meta-storytelling could bridge the gap between fantasy and reality, making the imagination seem important.
Can you believe I wrote an entire story about an author writing in a haunted hotel and I never once had her type: All work and no play make Jill a dull girl? (Is it too late to add that in?)
Just how does The Shiningrelate to He Has Many Names? Both stories feature writers as central characters, and if there was ever a condition that would make a person receptive to paranormal visitations it’s writers block.
There is one Psycho joke in He Has Many Nameswhen Noelle pitches ideas to her benefactor Barkley Carver. Carver wants her to write a serial killer thriller, a genre she detests. Worse still he wants her to make the killer’s victims unsympathetic so that the audience can relish in the torture porn.
Annoyed, Noelle says, “What if the victim stole a large deposit from her office? Let’s say she checks into the motel thinking Hunter is the owner. Maybe she overhears him arguing with… I want to say his mother. Perhaps something terrible could happen to her in the shower?”
These films lent an aura of unease to He Has Many Names. I can’t pin what I lifted from them, but I love them all the same. Add them to your watch list.
Hey. I get it. Shit happens. You’re hosting a board game night, trying to let some air into a socially suffocating relationship, but you can’t get anyone into the idea of a game of Clue. So you venture into the closet.
“What about Ticket to Ride?”
Your partner rolls their eyes. “It’s like Monopolybut with trains.”
Your partner’s friend with the man bun chimes in. “I’d prefer not to spend my evening celebrating crony capitalist.” And that’s that.
Your fingers scan past Merchants of Venice, The Settlers of Catan, or Vegas Showdown.
“What about The Game of Life?”
Everyone groans. “Life sucks.”
Someone points over your shoulder. “What’s that up there?”
You scan the fire hazards on the top shelf. “Twister?”
“No next to that. Is that a Ouija board?”
Six Months Later
Sixth months later and you’re still scrubbing blood red droplets from the bathroom ceiling, draining the fly carcasses from the light fixtures, and scraping frost from the mirrors.
One night of candlelit laughs has led to six months of strange electrical issues. Six months of handprints on the other side of the TV screen. Six months of bookmarks straight up disappearing. Not to mention the cat toys you keep finding up in the cobwebs, the long strands of hair dangling from the ceiling fans, and the footprints in the dust of your coffee table.
You can’t remember how many times you’ve discovered family photos in the microwave, turned around to find the dining room chairs stacked floor to ceiling, or all the cabinets bursting open at once. Your upstairs neighbor keeps stomping on the floor. He claims someone has been stomping on the ceiling.
Writers are always told our fiction should be informed by our experiences, because the best stories have a kernel of truth to them. With this in mind we smuggle our quote books into our characters’ mouths. We cast colleagues as our leads, and we misappropriate our memoirs into our material. We find and replace our own names and over-share under aliases. We launder tell off speeches through nom de plumes and reveal our truth through jest.
We write what we know until we write the fantastic elements of our story. Then we drop that mantra completely. Without the experiences to draw from we use other methods to ground our stories. We impose rules on the impossible.
A ghost can pester the living from the further, but will be weaker than a person who dares to go there. A magician can project a torch flame across the room, but the heat will diminish 60%. A Jedi can project his consciousness across the galaxy, but the journey will kill him.
We rely on western storytelling conventions to suspend our readers’ disbelief. We hope an internal logic will do the trick. For the most part it works, but what if there was a way to make our fantasies resonate with the same sense of authenticity as stories in our diaries? What if we had fantastic life experiences and we didn’t even know it?
Dreams are Experiences
Dreams are the only place (outside of drug fueled journeys, psychotic episodes, and virtual reality) where we experience true fantasy. Unlike daydreams, dreams push us out of the driver’s seat. When we ride through dream country we’re not creators, we’re experiencers. Our feelings aren’t manufactured, they’re reactive, and due to this delusion of perception, our observations are authentic.
I have friends who check out whenever I pitch them a story, but they lean in whenever I start talking about nightmares.
“My favorite jump scares toy with your expectations.”
Cue the Psycho Strings
In horror movies, jump scares make teenagers lose their popcorn, while veteran viewers hold onto their Milk Duds. Veterans know the rhythms of the genre. They know what it means when the score fades beneath a howling wind. They watch the victim tiptoe through a long uninterrupted shot. They know when to expect a cat to jump out, and when to expect a killer. While teens wince at the simple sight of blood, vets yawn at all the spiritless slaughter. If they’ve seen one hook pop out of someone’s throat, they’ve seen them all.
They’ve been exposed to far too many cheap chills, generic gotchas, and bargain BOO’s. Without good storytelling, panic feels passé, alert seems antiquated, and carnage seems commonplace.
Veteran viewers have been inoculated against these dated daunts. They lean back in their seats, with comfortable dry pants, secure in their immunity. What if there was a new strain of jump scare, one that resembled those creep show clichés, but broke through their resistance? Continue reading Cue the Psycho Strings→