Tag Archives: Horror writing

Should You Show the Monster?

I’ve long held that writers collaborate with their readers and that every reader makes their own artistic contribution.

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.

Use Hallucinations

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.

Closing Thoughts

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.

Continue reading Should You Show the Monster?

Drew Chial’s 10 Rules for Writing

I’ve noticed a number of authors putting their own spin on Jonathan Franzen’s 10 rules for writing, because nothing deepens a creator’s appreciation for their beloved medium than a set of strict limitations. Well worry not dear parishioners for the good reverend Drew has been to the mountain and he’s come down with his very own commandments for writing.

Screw the Noun, Do the Verb

Austin Kleon once wrote “Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb. They want the job title without the work.”

Trust me, introducing yourself as a writer is an invitation for embarrassment until you’ve gotten something published. For every minute you spend talking about your writing you need to spend an hour with your ass in the chair actually doing the work.

Trick yourself into writing

Day jobs can be emotionally exhausting leaving you with only so much creative energy to write with. I’ve found the easiest way to play double duty is to trick myself into thinking I’m not. I do this by taking all the formality out of my process. I make do without a silent writing room, a bottle of wine, or a fixed amount of time.

I’ve tapped out a short story on the bus by convincing myself it was going off the rails so I might as well sputter out with it. After a few edits it turned into something I really liked. I’ve dictated descriptions of creepy environments as I’ve walked through them. I’ve written dialogue on dance floors.

Inspiration doesn’t always strike under controlled conditions. (It does the more you put yourself in the conditions, but you get my point.)

Wait to tell people you’re writing a novel

First drafts are fragile things, especially when you’re laying the foundation. It’s good to be excited about your blueprint, but resist the urge to share that vision too soon. Pitch to the wrong person and that castle you’re building will fall apart like a house of cards.

Try to approach writing a novel like quitting smoking. Don’t tell anyone what you’re doing until you’re too far into the process to turn back. You’ll feel less ashamed if you falter and friends will take you far more seriously if you see it through.

Don’t give anyone other than your editor veto power

I’m a horror author in that I write supernatural fantasies not slasher-centric torture porn. That distinction might seem toothless, but aspects of my subgenre get me into trouble with my politically correct peers. Horror authors are shameless for mining other people’s strongly held religious beliefs for monsters, misrepresenting easily accessible information with a shroud of mysticism. Yeah, we’re probably the reason that Gypsies are still associated with curses, or that nature loving neo pagans are mistaken for devil worshipers, or that Voodoo dolls have anything to do with true Haitian Voodoo. Sorry. Our bad.

As new school horror writer I’m trying to be as progressive as possible. Historically if I felt iffy about an aspect of my stories I’d survey my friends. What I found was that the dismissive blanket term “problematic” came up when people had a bad feeling about a pitch but didn’t know how to put it into words.

Others were better at elaborating what was off about an idea, proposing alternatives and suggesting research avenues for me to pursue. When you ask for people’s opinions it’s on you to critically consider them, just don’t grant everyone veto power over your writing or you won’t dare write anything.

There are two types of feedback to consider

The first type is emotionally reactive feedback like, “This is garbage” which tells you nothing. Every pore of the Internet is clogged with emotionally reactive “feedback.” Trolling, name-calling, and dismissive blanket terms are the kinds of feedback worth ignoring.

Feedback worth considering comes in a longer form from people with the credentials to recognize what you were going for and the know how to fix it. It’s constructive.

Recycle your darlings

You’ve heard the phrase, “Kill your darlings.” As an editor you’ve got to be merciless, gutting your some of your favorite b-plots to keep the a-plot flowing. That said, don’t just highlight and hit DELETE, not when it’s an entire subplot that’s got to go. COPY and PASTE that into another document so that one day it may be recycled into something else.

Repurpose your fanfiction into original works

Face it. As an unknown author no one is going to license shit to. Mulder and Scully won’t be yours to order around. The mayor of Silent Hill isn’t giving you the keys to the city, and a new Highlandermovie is already in development rendering your fanfiction irrelevant.

It’s fun to fantasize in established universes because all the world-building and characterization has been done for you. All you have to do is come up with the situation. If you find yourself visiting someone else’s intellectual property in your mind I urge you to transpose your original situations into something that’s yours to copyright.

E.L. James did it with her Twilight fanfiction and look where that got here. (Not my favorite example, but it’s the first one that comes to mind.)

Be mindful of your soundtrack

Orchestral film scores that are too emotionally engaging have a way of tricking me into thinking I’m writing more effective scenes than I am. My hero’s emotional revelation might seem melodramatic without the soundtrack.

Find a soundtrack that leaves room for your imagination. I like dark wave synthesizer film scores and noir piano jazz.  Both genres fit the tone of my writing and both are slow and repetitive enough to fade into the background when I need them to.

Creating the perfect playlist can devolve into another distraction from your writing. Case in point: the playlist for my first novel is a nonstop month of instrumental music. These days I usually go to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s Spotify page and hit PLAY.

Hold something back

I feed too much of my art into the gapping maw of the Internet with its insatiable appetite for fresh content. I want people to check out my books, but I’ve found the only way to get them to look in my direction is to post something on the blog. Sometimes that’s an on brand article and sometimes it’s a short story I probably should’ve sold to somebody. I’ve given too much of myself away for the short-term benefit of a few measly clicks.

It’s gratifying to get an immediate reaction from something you’ve written. Try finding that gratification offline. Find a writer’s workshop or pass printed copies to friends.

Your writing should be a collaboration with your readers

Leave room in every story for your reader to make a contribution. You don’t need to play costume designer by describing every stitch of clothing on your characters. Give a partial description, like an idea of the character’s fashion sense. Leave it to the reader to choose the garments. Describe your settings to a point, but leave some abstractions for readers to fill in. You can describe the look on a character’s face without explaining the meaning behind each micro expression.

If your writing is entertaining readers will want to suss out the subtext and add their own meaning. So let them. Continue reading Drew Chial’s 10 Rules for Writing

On Sabrina the Satanic Temple and Who Owns the Devil

The Satanic Temple is threatening to sue Netflix over The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s use of a monument to Baphomet that looks strikingly similar to theirs.

Occult author Eliphas Levi illustrated the classic Sabbatic Goat depiction of Baphomet. For their monument The Satanic Temple removed the breasts and added a pair of admiring children. The sculpture on The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina reflects these alterations.

When the statue was brought to his attention The Satanic Temple’s co-founder and spokesperson Lucien Greaves said, ”Having one’s central icon associated with human sacrifice in an evil patriarchal cult is hardly good exposure and hardly a frivolous complaint. Fighting this bullshit is the heart of the cause. Not only does it contradict what Baphomet represents, we owe it to those who identify with us to not allow this image, and by extension them, to be represented in this way.”

While The Satanic Temple’s copyright complaint has grounds, the rest of their statement on The Chilling Adventures of Sabrinais flawed and as a horror writer I’ll explain why.

A Little History

In 2014, The Satanic Temple crowd sourced a sculpture of Baphomet in response to Ten Commandments Monument at Oklahoma’s State Capital. Attendees had to sell their souls to get a ticket, which organizers said was to drive away the truly superstitious. The Satanic Temple’s aim wasn’t to honor an actual demonic entity, but to protest the values State Representative Mike Ritze was imposing upon them. The unveiling ceremony was a cheeky act of civil disobedience. Clever pranksters shined a national spotlight on a divisive issue and both monuments have since been removed.

In case it wasn’t obvious: The Satanic Temple does not believe in a literal Satan who comes when summoned. They see that predatory lender who cashes in on souls as a fictional character. They use Satan’s likeness as an act of protest from religious encroachment. They’re trying to rebrand the devil as a symbol of rational dissent.

Writing about this I am deeply conflicted. I’m skeptical of the supernatural. I don’t like when people turn their spiritual beliefs into public policy, and I’ve participated and even lead satirical protests myself.

But as a horror writer I take issue with The Satanic Temple claiming ownership of Baphomet and by extension Satan as fictional characters. Who are they to dictate how writers get to use Satan, especially since they’re coopting him as a tool for their satire?

Imagine if demonstrators dressed as vampires to protest rising temperatures. It would be good for laugh, but no one would take the vampires seriously if they turned around and criticized Castlevaniaon Netflix cartoon for its depiction of Dracula. Get the fuck out of here. You don’t own Dracula.

Back to Sabrina

Perhaps these threats of litigation against Netflix are continuations of The Satanic Temple’s one note joke. If that’s the case it’s just not that funny. Protesting ten commandment monuments on government land feels like punching upward. Protesting a TV show that plays with demon mythology to tell a story of female empowerment feels like punching sideways.

If most practicing Satanists don’t believe in the occult then how woke do stories about Satanic blood orgies really need to be? If you think The Satanic Temple is insincere in their belief in the Satanic pantheon than who are they to dictate who gets to play with it in fiction? In The Chilling Adventures of SabrinaSabrina isn’t a member of The Satanic Temple or The Church of Satan. She’s a member of The Church of Night. Lucien Greaves accurately pointed out that The Church of Night is patriarchal and barbaric, because of course it is, Sabrina needed something to struggle with. Give the audience some credit. Even devoutly religious viewers know that The Church of Night doesn’t exist.

You Can’t Own the Devil

If you appropriate an image of Baphomet from an occultist and rebrand the character as an icon of skeptical enlightenment, you don’t get to be pissed off if a storyteller re-appropriates Baphomet as a symbol of the occult. You may own the sculpture, but you don’t own the character.

In the demand letter sent to Netflix the lawyer for the Satanic Temple claims, “My client is struggling to overcome centuries of stigma surrounding their religious symbolism.”

Let me unpack that for a moment. The devil in bible is not depicted as a goat-legged faun like the statue of Baphomet. He’s said to be a Cherubim, a class of angel with four wings, four hands, and four heads covered head to toe in eyeballs.

Satan became a faun when early Christians took issue with the popularity of idols made to the Greek God Pan. They appropriated Pan’s likeness into their devil, who was then appropriated by Eliphas Levi into his Sabbatic Goat illustration, who was then appropriated by The Satanic Temple into their statue of Baphomet, who was then appropriated by The Chilling Adventures of Sabrinafor a fun little show about witches. Centuries of stigma surrounding your religious symbolism? More like centuries of stealing.

I think everyone owes the Greek God Pan some royalties.

Also, no, The Satanic Temple isn’t centuries old. It was founded in 2012. The Church of Satan, which has rebuked The Satanic Temple, was founded by Anton Szandor LaVey in 1966. People have been accused of being Satanists for centuries, yes, but people didn’t start claiming to be until very recently.

Not a Place I Expected to Find Political Correctness

As amusing as I’ve found The Satanic Temple’s protests it irks me to see an organization that stands out as the antithesis of political correctness try to weaponize political correctness to its advantage.

Don’t bullshit a bullshitter. You didn’t get into Satanism because you were sensitive. Part of the appeal of claiming Satan is getting a rise out of people, especially when you’re driving them batty over something you yourself don’t believe.

All of this ink on The Satanic Temple’s lawsuit reads like click bait signal boosting from entertainers clamoring to stay relevant. You don’t get to cry religious persecution if you don’t buy into your own dogma. That’s some major league false equivalency bullshit.

Satanic Panic? Please

One of the reasons The Satanic Temple says it takes issue with The Chilling Adventures of Sabrinais how it fans the flames of Satanic Panic. I’d argue the show is far too playful to be taken as a serious representation of any strongly held religious belief system.

I’ve written articles that openly debate whether or not horror writers have any responsibilities when it comes to fanning the flames of superstition, but I strongly doubt we’ll see another wave of Satanic Panic as a result of this or American Horror Story: Apocalypse.

TV pundits aren’t talking about backwards messages in heavy metal records. Geraldo Rivera isn’t harassing Ozzy Osbourne anymore.

Few people even remember Dr. Demento’s harrowing expose on the ritual magic of Dungeons and Dragons.

“Michelle Remembers” has been out of print for a long time. No one is recovering suppressed memories of their imagined cultist upbringing. No is claiming there are mass graves on the outskirts of town.

Horror movies are en vogue again. Harry Potter protests are done and guess what? Harry Potter won.

Satanic Panic is over.

Magus Peter H. Gilmore from The Church of Satan (again, not to be confused with The Satanic Temple) refers to devil worshipers’ newfound prominence in films like The Witchand Hereditaryas a sign of “Satanic Unease,” a symptom of the toxic tribalism in all of our escalating divisions. That’s not a bad diagnosis, but I think its really just Satanic Cynicism.

I doubt any of these screenwriters think practitioners of black magic really exist, so they lump all Satanists together and treat them like any other horror trend. It was zombies and vampires last year. Now its Satanic witches (who bear no real resemblance to true Satanists or Neo-Pagan Wiccans). Soon when all the tides start rising it will be Lovecraftian ocean people with gills (oh wait, that’s already a thing).

I Too Have Appropriated Satan, Come At Me Bro

My book He Has Many Names explores the modern devil, from the few times he takes the stage in the bible, how he got his horns, and what fueled the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Neither The Church of Satan or The Satanic Temple have so much as a walk on role, because the story isn’t about Satanism. It’s about how Satan became a trope in fiction. The protagonist is a writer exploring Satan’s origins only to face a brand new mythology of my own design, and I’ll be damned if I owed anyone any royalties. Continue reading On Sabrina the Satanic Temple and Who Owns the Devil

How Horror Bloggers can Milk Halloween All October Long

Another October is upon us and you know what that means: morning show hosts treating pumpkin spice like it’s heroin, think pieces on seasonal depression, and outrage over tone deaf Halloween costumes (this year it’s a slinky short skirted version of the robes from the Handmaid’s Tale).

Oh, and horror writers doing everything they can to get you to look in our direction.

“Hey! You know you’ve been meaning to check out my scary stories out for a while? Well now’s the time!”

That’s right. Now’s the time of year horror writers get to be on brand and topically relevant to the normies in our social media feed. Rather than dig deep for a memoir on how the season shaped our young imaginations (something personally profound no one would read) we need quick clickable articles that write themselves.

Well if you’re looking for a template for sharable Halloween content to steal from you’ve come to the right guy.

Tis the Season to be Listing

Nothing says cheap mindless content like laying on the listicles. Sure everyone who’s into horror has seen trailers for every film that’s come out this year, but you’re a movie maven so inform everyone what they really ought to be watching.

Maybe you’ll be the 10thcritic to finally push them into seeing Mandy, it’s Nic Cage fighting cenobite bikers with a battle-axe (in a slow burning surrealist study with sparse dialogue). What’s not to like?

Maybe you can be the first of your film buff friends to pitch The Endless in a way that makes sense to casual audiences.

“It’s the story of two brothers visiting the cult they’ve escaped from to find the commune stuck in a sentient pocket dimension hell-bent on claiming them.”

“It’s a coming of age tale set in a UFO death cult.”

“It’s basically The Wicker Man meets Groundhogs Day.”

Clearly I haven’t cracked it yet. Why don’t you try?

Or maybe you can be the first amongst to laud praise on the deboot of Halloween, and champion other exhausted franchises to dump their excess canon in favor of a direct sequels to their original films.

Tap some lists out at the bus stop. Here are some suggestions:

  • Best on Screen Decapitations (The Exorcist 3 is obligatory)
  • Best Mirror Jump Scares
  • Best Demon Etching Title Sequences
  • Best Uses of Moonlight Sonata in a Horror Property
  • Best Horror Spins on Less Successful Sci Fi Premises
  • Best Recent Horrific Crimes for Writers to Base New Material on While the Families are Still Grieving
  • Most Violent Moments on Broadcast Television that Would’ve Gotten an R Rating Had They Been Shown on the Big Screen
  • Best Stephen King Tribute References in Stephen King’s Own Novels

These lists practically write themselves.

Review the Shit Out of Everything

There are too many horror shows for streamers to sift through. Isn’t it part of your vocation as a champion of revulsion to grade them with some sort of skull-centric rating system? Halloween is the Oscars for all things horror. It’s your duty as a corrupter of young minds to cast your vote on time.

Mine the Hell Out of the Past

Save your audience a Google search by listing all the Halloween themed episodes available on streaming. Rank The Simpson Tree House of Horror episodes. Add episodes from the revival seasons of The X-Files to your best of posts, and list the top 10 episodes of The Twilight Zone you want Jordan Peele to remake in the forthcoming series.

Repackage Old Articles with Seasonal Thumbnails

That old blog on Horror Clichés in Need of an Exorcism is just one jack-o-lantern PNG away from being relevant again. That entry on the art of Building Your Own Monsters is just a Halloween hashtag from being reblogged by readers. You got a few comments from that The War on Halloween editorial just add a devil emoji and share that shit again.

People who know me, should’ve suspected my demon nature for some time.

Streamline Your Short Fiction

Writing seasonal flash fiction is challenging. Those short stories get hits in the moment, but on October 31st they become irrelevant. Why waste your time and energy when you just want readers to click on the books for sale in the margins?

I recommend stocking up on Mad Libs and filling them with monster references:

(Man’s name) Flavius Octavius Davis walked in and opened the (noun) lead lined casket where he found a (adjective) bioluminescent (verb) mangled (noun) alien corpse with rope-like heaps of coiled tentacles. He exclaimed (exclamation) “Sweet Jesus, no!”

Make Your Readers Do the Work

Invite the audience to vote on your Halloween costume options, plans for the night in question, and ultimately your excuses for staying in.

But Whatever You Do Don’t…

Don’t give up them game by telling readers about the cynical click-bait schemes you’ve been concocting behind the scenes. That would be the kind noxious over sharing that would be harmful to your brand. You want to seem like your authentic self to readers without letting it all hang out and actually being authentic.

Only a well-trained transdimensional traveler secure in his meta-musings would poses the strength of mind to even attempt such a thing. (Drew wipes the sweat from his brow while tugging at his collar like a nervous cartoon character.)

Oh… and… uh… Happy Halloween!

•••

Meet Noelle, 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?

Pre-order my novel HE HAS MANY NAMES today!

How Being A Writer Makes the Ads I See Weird

When I was researching He Has Many Names, a story about the devil and a sleazy hotel, I Googled my share of strange things. Most of the story takes place in a forest-themed fantasy suite. As the suite’s interior decorator I had to fill the space with the right furniture. Now I can’t scroll through my Instagram feed without seeing ads for live edge redwood coffee tables, cherry blossom desk lamps, Styrofoam stalactites, moon shaped lanterns, and vine-themed sex swings.

My research queries ended up in my cookies and swapped information between all my logins. My inquiries into the etymology of the devil, his many forms, and the Satanic panic of the 1980s follow me like toilet paper on the bottom of my boot.

Thanks AdChoices but no I’m not interested in BlueDevil Head Gasket Sealer, Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners, or New Jersey Devils apparel. Try harder.

When Searches Go Public

In 2006 a large number of AOL’s users search history leaked online. The 2013 documentaryTerms and Conditions May Apply shows what happened when several anonymous users were identified by their search terms.

One AOL user in particular had a most intriguing search history. He’d looked up “How to kill your wife” multiple times along with “decapitated photos” and pictures of “murder victims.” Alarmist headlines dubbed him the scariest user on AOL and several armchair sleuths set out to unmask him.

Eventually the documentary filmmakers caught up with Jerome Schwartz and pressed him to see if these search terms were his. He admitted to looking up all of them and a slew of other macabre things. Turns out he was writer for the TV show Cold Caseand these search queries were research for his work.

In the documentary Jerome speculates what would happen if a government algorithm had flagged his searches and the FBI came knocking. I’ve joked about what would happen if the feds confronted me with my search history going so far as to turn the scenario into a short story. If these invasions of privacy become the norm a lot of authors are going to need alibis (this is why I write in public). #WriterProblems.

The New Abnormal

I have a feeling AdChoices will damn me to awkward public encounters for years to come.

I’ll be scrolling through FaceBook when someone will catch some strange shit in my border columns.

“A rhinestone codpiece, shackles, and a gimp mask? I had no clue you went in for all that.”

“I’m writing a scene set in a bondage club so those keep showing up.”

“And the adult sized Winnie the Pooh costume with the open butt flap?”

“Oh well, I am into.”

My Killer App Idea

What if there was a browser extension that recognized the online behaviors of writers and adjusted searches, ads, and results accordingly? And no I don’t mean constantly showing us ads for Grammarly or Scrivener. I’m talking about ads that are fine tuned to enhance the research process be it the intricate procedures that make up your characters’ careers, deep dives into the mythology you’re drawing from, or visual inspiration for the buildings that fill up your plot of the astral plane.

If our cookies spread our data from one site to another wouldn’t it be nice if the cookies contextualized the data as it went? The app could let sites know when we’re looking for home décor and when we’re looking for props for our settings, when we’re shopping for apparel and when we’re putting costumes on characters.

If advertisers have to mine my data they could at least draw the right conclusions from it.

Until they do I’ll just keep an ad blocker running. Continue reading How Being A Writer Makes the Ads I See Weird

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

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

How to Build Your Own Inferno

Hell is an ever-changing landscape, a neighborhood every would-be master of the macabre wants to build real estate on. The bible says Hell is a lake of burning sulfur, a blazing furnace filled with much weeping and gnashing of teeth yada-yada-yada. It’s actually a bit fuzzy on the details. There was a lot left for the likes of Dante and Milton to fill in. It’s from their foundations the blueprint got passed down for generations.

The Hell Loop

While hell has enjoyed many renovations since its inception several storytellers have settled on the one design. Let’s call it the hell loop. In a hell loop a sinner is forced to relive their worst memory for all eternity. It’s like Groundhog Day if Bill Murray’s character couldn’t change the events he relived, learned nothing from them, and had less time before the loop came back around.

You’ll see examples of this in movies like Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey andConstantineand in TV shows like The Twilight Zone,American Horror Story, Preacher, and Lucifer.

I think the hell loop cheats the audience. Hell is one of those colorful settings where writers have license to go big, get weird, and revel in the absurd. Looping a real world event feels like a copout. It’s an easy scenario to film on a budget and it doesn’t require much imagination. The scenario provides a safe default when hell’s architect doesn’t feel like drawing up a plan.

While a hell loop would be a horrible thing to experience it isn’t all that poetic. Continue reading How to Build Your Own Inferno

How to Scare a Skeptic

I’ve seen the northern lights stream across the sky like a special effect, but I’ve never seen an unidentified flying object. I’ve awoken to a shadow standing beside my bed post, but I can’t claim to have seen a ghost. I’ve hiked through many a forest until my legs went caput, but I’ve never laid eyes on big foot.

I’ve met people who’ve claimed to have performed exorcisms, to have had near death experiences, and to have spoken to spirits. I want to believe everything they say, because it makes the world seem magical, but there’s something I’ve learned over the years: people say a lot of things. Continue reading How to Scare a Skeptic