Tag Archives: horror fiction

KillerCon Travel Journal: Strange Rites

I’ve read books with gaudy covers because I’ve loved their authors and I’ve watched as the cover art shifted in my mind as I went. Geometrically the illustrations were in the exact same positions, but I’d attached new meanings. After putting the book down I was hard pressed to imagine any other cover. The design had improved upon association.

The same phenomenon applies to people. Charm can make an average looking Joe handsome and a sense of humor looks great on a woman. A positive association of someone attaches to their form, like an aura of positivity, and makes you eager to see them.

I felt these positive associations form in my brief time here at the KillerCon, getting to know established writers, up and comers, and the fans roving the hotel floors.

In my home city of Minneapolis I function on a safe predictable loop (yes, like the second season of Mr. Robot). I go to work, for coffee, and my weekly club night. I’m less likely to feel socially anxious when I know what to expect.

My first day at KillerCon I was out of element, a stranger in a strange land of splatter punks and hardcore horror aficionados who’ve traveled on the same circuit. At first I felt less like a participant and more like a pop cultural anthropologist.

Then I realized everyone was wearing conversations starters on their sleeves, literally tattooed right on: portraits of the Bride of Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft, Pinhead, and Cthulhu.

Eventually those of us with thousand yard stares at the bar started looking closer at one another, laughing over shared obsessions, pitching stories, telling morbid tales of our own hometowns.

Since opening ceremonies we’ve tortured ourselves with hot sauces, death peppers, strange foods, and gross out stories. Last night I took the Malort challenge, shots of a drink whose creator says is for drinkers who disdain the light flavors of neutral spirits. If you enter #MalortFace into Instagram you’ll see a series of portrait of people who’ve taken the same challenge.

View this post on Instagram

#malortface

A post shared by Drew Chial (@drewchial) on

That was last night, a whirlwind of hotel room parties, singing, and storytelling. This morning on the final day of KillerCon the event feels like summer camp. I wasn’t sure if anyone would like me on the day I arrived now I wish I had more time with everyone.

Why Stories About Satan Are Still in Fashion

I’ve always loved deal with the devil stories. From The Devil and Daniel Websterto Needful Things. There’s something about the whole situation I find appealing: the downtrodden hero, the devil incognito, the reality-bending bargain, the buyer’s remorse, and the last ditch effort by to find an escape clause. I’ve always found the situation compelling.

Despite the theology these stories draw from they’re essentially fables about grifters trying to outwit one another. But speaking of theology, I like how these stories play off our need to find cosmic conformation for our values, toy with our sense of mysticism, and challenge our beliefs.

I want to unpack why these stories work so well for me.

We’re Wired for Mysticism

Humanity has a tendency to see patterns in the chaos of nature. Scanning the forest we see faces in the bark. When the breeze shifts we feel the trees are reaching out for us.

We see things in the shadows, because darkness is not the absence of light, it’s the presence of mystery, of phantasmagorical figures and imperceivable whispers.

When our minds fail to grasp something we mystify it. Storytellers know how to exploit this glitch.

When you woke up paralyzed and saw a dark figure at the foot of your bed it might have just been a waking hallucination… but deep down you suspect a demonic visitation. Storytellers know how take your suspicions and turn them in myths.

How Satan Came From Mysticism

Stage magicians used to tell wild stories about the origins of their tricks. They’d say traveled to a misty mountain monastery in the east, in the Far East, where monks worshiped not the one true God, but many deities. It was safe for the magician to presume no one in his audience had been to the region so he filled it with giant sea monsters, strange customs, and cannibalism. The audience would believe him because they were already primed to fear what they don’t understand.

We’re wired to fear everyone outside of our tribe and the devil is the ultimate outsider.

Early Christians mystified foreign Gods by recasting them as devils. The biggest victim of this transition was the horned God Pan. At the time Greek sculptures had made more idols to Pan than any other figure. Perhaps they found his horns and hooves intriguing. Perhaps they identified with his naturalistic philosophy. Perhaps they enjoyed depicting his giant dong.

Early crucifix salesmen couldn’t handle the competition so they launched a campaign to smear Pan’s brand. The only problem was there was already an adversary in Christianity: Lucifer.

Lucifer was a fallen cherubim, a race of angels with four wings, four heads, and skin covered in eyeballs. The bible never says Lucifer changed forms when he fell from heaven, but theologians (beginning with Eusebius) decided that Satan should look like Pan. They gave the Shepard God the old Mephistopheles makeover. No longer would Pan guide weary travelers out of the woods. Now he’d try to swindle them out of their souls.

Many a Pagan deity got the same Satanic mani pedi, and in their demonization their titles got added to those of the devil. He has many names, because not all of them were his. They were stolen and handed down.

The Mystique of the Devil in the Details

The dated mysticism of the foreign other doesn’t work in a woke wired world. These days we need new unknowns to mystify. Judging by the popularity of shows like Black Mirrorwe are now mystifying technology. Even the most conditioned coders can’t help but fear the future. Most of us have a nagging suspicion that social media algorithms are unraveling our souls. There’s room for a new devil in all those ones and zeros.

Perhaps Satan is lurking in all those terms and conditions no one ever feels like reading. I mean do you have 76 days to scan through the privacy policies you agree to annually? For all we know there are incantations between the lines and that subconsciously we’ve found ourselves at the mercy of a form of bleeding edge bibliomancy. Which brings me to…

The Satanic Contract

Part of the appeal of the deal with the devil story is how it upsets the established order. The established order of things is unfair. The playing field isn’t level and many of us will spend our entire lives just scrapping by. It’s easy to be righteous when you’re rich, but when you’re sinking in the quicksand of car payments and student loans morality is a luxury.

So in walks a goat legged eccentric with a pocket full of cheat codes. He says with a little up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, b, a select starthe can grant you whatever is in your heart. All it will cost you is that 21 grams of something that goes missing when you stop breathing. “I mean, what is a soul really?”

You take the Faustian bargain, make a pact with Satan, and get exactly what you want… only to realize it wasn’t what you wanted after all and that the game isn’t satisfying when you play it in easy mode. You want to buy your soul back, but you can’t afford the interest. Turns out the devil is a predatory lender, a shifty genie who never grants the extra wish that lets you get your ass out of debt.

Now you’re staring down the barrel of hell, your back is against the ultimate wall, and the stakes have never been higher. You’re going to have to get creative if you’re going to claw your way out of this.

I fucking love these stories.

Not because of Satan. He’s just the catalyst. He forces the hero to evolve, to better themself, and muster up all of their cunning. I love scary stories with well placed mysticism and epic villains, but secretly I long for a hard won happy ending, with a good life lesson. Deal with the devil stories are great vehicles for this. Continue reading Why Stories About Satan Are Still in Fashion

How Silent Hill Inspired My Writing

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

HE HAS MANY NAMES: Full Book Art Reveal

Behold the fold book design for He Has Many Names by Matthew Revert.

Submitted for Your Approval 

MeetNoelle, a Hollywood transplant that’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.

PREORDER NOW!

Design by Matthew Revert

Dragon’s Breath: A Horror Story About Telling Stories

The Van

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?”

“Holy water.”

“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?’”

“Yes.”

“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.

“The dress code always starts with footwear.”

Continue reading Dragon’s Breath: A Horror Story About Telling Stories

The Films That Inspired My Novel: He Has Many Names

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.

1408

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. Continue reading The Films That Inspired My Novel: He Has Many Names

How to Exorcise a Demon So You can Get Your Damage Deposit Back

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?”

“What’s that?”

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.

You refuse to call the situation what it is and your partner refuses to sleep over anymore. Continue reading How to Exorcise a Demon So You can Get Your Damage Deposit Back

RETAIL HELL COVER REVEAL

Why Every Horror Writer Needs A Nightmare Journal

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.

This is why I advocate the keeping of a nightmare journal, a Compendium of phantasms, an Atlas of the abyss, a Bestiary of bogeymen. You get the idea. Continue reading Why Every Horror Writer Needs A Nightmare Journal

Cue the Psycho Strings

“My favorite jump scares toy with your expectations.”

IMG_0718

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