Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Perfect Horror Monster by Brian Fatah Steele

horror monster

The perfect horror monster? Sigmund Freud would’ve had a blast with that concept. Joseph Campbell would’ve just thrown some random book of mythology at your head. Jean-Paul Sartre had the quote, “Hell is other people.” Perhaps, if anything, the truly monstrous is relative and personalized, unique to the individual.

But, hey…monsters are cool! From Lovecraft’s Cthulhu chomping on your sanity to DC Comic’s Doomsday leveling a city for giggles, we get a kick out of them. And if we should attempt to objectively describe ten characteristics of the perfect horror monster, well, that’s just fun. However, we may need to dig deeper than sharpened claws and alien origins.

10 tips for the perfect horror monster

Something Recognizable. No one’s imagination springs anew from a vacuum, and even if it did, nobody else would understand what you were talking about if you tried to describe the creepy stuff in your head. As much as Howard Philip spoke of things “unknown and eldritch,” he brought up tentacles a lot, too. Readers understood tentacles, and knew they were gross. A great deal of Christian symbolism relies heavily on images of bats and goats when detailing the Devil. Why? Because humans can more easily conceive of animal parts than a living darkness that wants to torment their souls for eternity.

Something Perverted. No, not in a sexual way. I’m talking about taking something familiar and comfortable, then twisting it into horrible new proportions. This is why toys, pets, grandmas, doctors and anything we usually perceive as innocent or benevolent is instantly rendered terrifying and becomes the perfect horror monster when revealed in a distorted manner. You’ve recognized it, but now it’s been transformed into an incorrect version of itself. Hello, Pennywise!

Something Imminent. Whatever threat or danger presented by our monster, something must somehow be displayed as impending. Here we get our blood-dripping fangs, our cybernetically implanted laser guns, and our crackling beams of dark magic. We need something that can cause immediate harm, and therefor, immediate fear. Any demon-possessed maniac swinging a chainsaw at you is a good example of this.

Something Subdued. While the giant scorpion tail or exoskeleton made out of razor blades is freakin’ horrific, we need more for our perfect monster. It needs a presence, an aura of sheer malevolence that we feel in our guts. Perhaps a certain sound it makes, or the way it moves, something about it affects us on a deeper level. This is the malignancy that lingers and haunts us later. We’re now in Hannibal Lector territory, but with actual shark teeth.

Something Revealed. The horror lurking in the shadows is always disturbing, but sometimes knowing can be worse. A glimmer of knowledge, a snippet of information, that’s all we get, but it’s enough to know we’re screwed. Have we discovered its origin, its destination, its reason for eating everyone’s faces? That little puzzle box you’ve been trying to open just got a whole lot more ominous.

Something Reserved. It needs intellect, or purpose beyond being a mindless killing machine. Unreasoning zombies are bad, yes, but you can take out one with a shovel to the skull. This thing had a hidden agenda, secret abilities and maybe even disposable minions. Maybe we don’t really know it’s origin, just what it wants us to think. This is a singular monstrosity hellbent on something we can’t even fathom, deceptions behind the lies, and chances are we’ll never know everything.

Something Abstracted. In some manner, this perfect horror monster must transcend our rational mind. Whether from a post-apocalyptic future, the pits of hell, or the planet Yuggoth, it has to have some ties to a concept that forces us to suspend belief. This is an atrocity incarnate, so logic isn’t really going to apply here. Some part of it will factor outside the realm of reason, a large part of why it’s so terrifying. Dracula does not care if his snack believes in him or not.

Something Actualized. Dropping back into the real world, there has to be some aspect of it that we comprehend as well. Remember the giant scorpion tail? Kind of like that, but we’re more into the essence of our monster now as opposed to the appearance. Should we give it a name, or has it named itself? We understand names, and we even can conceive of the future, hell, and other planets. Nyarlathotep was bad as The Crawling Chaos, but somehow it sucks way more when it’s smiling at you from across the coffee shop.

Something Conscious. At the end of the day, our perfect monster must somehow reflect the human experience. We have to see some identifiable part of ourselves in it, and feel that connection on a cognitive level. There has to be something that makes us say, “This monster represents this,” or “Is a manifestation of that.” Whether these allegations are true or not is irrelevant, because some part of us will feel as if we’ve conquered it… right up until it tears our limbs out.

Something Unconscious. Finally, we must empathize with this horror monster on a more emotional level. It has to speak to us in some deep, almost primitive fashion. We acknowledge it is an avatar of nightmares, a walking obscenity, and accept this fact. While we may not agree with this abomination’s existence, we agree that it does indeed exist. The monster buried inside all of us finds comfort in its more obvious abhorrent nature, but we will never voice this.

So there you go, ten characteristics of the perfect horror monster. A bit philosophical overall, but deconstructed to more base creative elements. Needless to say, if anything remotely this nasty decided to stroll down the road, I’d sob like a little kid. Regardless, I’d still love to see it through my tears those last few moments before all the screaming and the bleeding ensued.

BRIAN FATAH STEELE, a member of the indie author co-op Dark Red Press, describes the majority of his work as “Epic Horror with lots of Explosions.” Along with multiple books, his articles and stories have appeared in various e-magazines and online journals. Steele lives in Ohio with a few cats that are probably plotting his doom. Surviving on a diet primarily of coffee and cigarettes, he occasionally dabbles in Visual Arts and Music Production. He still hopes to one day become a Super Villain.

http://brianfatahsteele.com

http://www.darkredpress.com

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How to improve your writing

improve your writing

If you are a dedicated scribe, you’re always looking for ways to improve your writing.

The other day, for some reason (I wasn’t drunk or high on cocoa beans), I started thinking about the resources I use in my writing. I was sitting in front of the fire, wearing my red velour evening jacket, smoking a pipe and pondering the imponderables of life, as you do of a Sunday evening when Sherlock’s finished and your old man’s blaring La Traviata out at full crack from his Crossley 54 Radio.

And then I thought, hey, for a hobby, you know, writing’s pretty cheap. You don’t really need a whole lot of resources – a lap top, pen and paper, the love of a good therapist, drink.

Ah, I snort, quaffing another one of the Christmas Turkish Delights nobody else wanted and slurping the last of the Cranberry juice lifestyle coaches say is so good for you.

But what about all those books you’ve bought and read over the years?

And then it struck me, yes it did folks, like a great bolt delivered by Charles Dickens himself:

My most important writing tool is my Kindle.

There I’ve said it. Happy now people?

I decided last May to take the plunge and buy a Kindle and I have to admit that I was sceptical. The usual, old timers response to new technology I’m afraid: You can’t beat the weight/feel/smell/taste of a real book.

This I quickly found to be bollocks.

An e-reader is better than a book. It doesn’t weigh you down and you can carry all your damn novels around in your fecking pocket. How can that not be better? You get a wider choice of books and you don’t have to wait a week for them to turn up at your door. HOW is that NOT better?

And what about the in-book dictionary? It means I don’t have to pretend I know what a word means because I can’t be arsed to get the dictionary off the shelf, I can look it up there and then and five minutes later forget it…without hardly moving a fecking muscle!

But the thing it also allowed me to do was simply this: It allowed me, or encouraged me, to read MORE. Whereas I used to read one ordinary book a week, with the Kindle (and please note there are other equally suitable electronic readers out there) I’m reading two or three.

Currently, I’m reading Cool Hand Luke. I’ve seen the film countless times but never knew there was a book until Scott Roche mentioned it in the comments section of one of my previous blogs.

And it’s a good book in its own right.

I also download a wider variety of stuff now…good and, sometimes, hopelessly bad. Of course, you learn to improve your writing from the good, get energised by it, but you can also learn from the bad and be energised by that too.

Look at all the genres: horror, thriller, western, comedy…Okay, so I haven’t downloaded (at least knowingly) any chick-lit yet, but I may do. I may snuggle down in bed and see what Seventeen Ways to Ruin a Casserole has to offer.

I may…then again, I may not…

What other past-time allows you to improve your skills whilst lying on your back and just moving your eyes?

Okay, so now you’re listing them. I thought you would. But you get my drift, right?

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What makes good horror by A W Marsden

What’s that? Corner of your eye… no, don’t look. See. That’s it. Over there, at the very edge of your field of vision, in that fuzzy zone between colour and shadow. It’s gone now. But it was there, wasn’t it? You believe your own eyes, don’t you?

What about that noise? The little rustle from the far side of the room. Just rubbish settling, plastic uncurling in the wastebasket. Or is it?

I grew up on Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? Every night after school, I would rush in, get changed out of my uniform, grab a plate of Jaffa Cakes from the fridge, and settle down in the living room to be scared.

Not every tale scared me.

So I started reading the books, harassing the librarians for more every week. The books did scare me. Not just when I was reading, but long after I’d put them down. Alone in my room. As I turned the lights off. It was my own imagination that scared me the most. I was hungry for more.

So began my love affair with all things dark and macabre.

These days, I still get scared. I sometimes scare myself, late at night when writing. Getting too caught up in your own little worlds is a hazard of the job, I suppose. It’s not the buckets of blood and gore that scare. It’s the sudden movement you think you saw a moment ago. The sound that you don’t recognise. The strange coolness that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck when you realise you’re the only person in the room, in the house, but the door is open to the landing and the stair just creaked and at any moment something will walk or crawl or shuffle or lumber through the door.

Our imagination, given enough fuel (by enough I mean: very little), can wreak havoc on our vulnerable nerves. When Ofelia (Pan’s Labyrinth) eats two grapes despite the Faun’s dire warnings, it is not the grotesque image of the Pale Man, eyes-in-hand, that frightens us. It is the thought of what he will do to us if he catches us that makes our hearts hammer and our knuckles bite deep into the arms of the chair. We get that not from him, but the sketches on the walls of children ripped apart and eaten.

The opening of Jurassic Park still sticks in the mind long after the film is over, a fierce yellow eye and a flash of teeth are all that hint at the poor worker’s fate before Bob Peck orders his men to “Shoot her!” A serene lake dissolves into view to the sound of gunshots, while we breathe deep and try to calm ourselves.

A trope of theatre for centuries, the worst violence almost always occurs off stage. Only the bloodied daggers are testament to the atrocity that Macbeth has visited upon King Duncan, yet in our minds eye we play over and over every cut and thrust of the blades as they pierce Duncan again and again.

Good horror, in my humble view, uses scares that we cannot see, forcing our own imagination to do the work. Even with modern CGI effects bringing every little drop of blood and viscera to the lens, the best scares are when something appears for only a moment. I’m not talking about that overused cliche ‘jump-moment’ either. That tactic is a tired, pathetic excuse for horror. Give the audience a clue, the slightest one. They are intelligent, they will scare themselves easily enough.

But why? What does horror set out to do, other than just scare people? After all, the blood, gore, monsters, death and jumps are all capable of inducing fear.

These aren’t enough, because they don’t get people to think.

There are many horrors in the world today, real, tangible. From Gaddafi’s bloodied face on the front pages of the tabloids, to the bodies falling from the World Trade Centre towers, through mutilated corpses of women and children online. These things are terrible. But people easily form detachment from them. I’ve seen young teenagers reblog gore-fest pictures right alongside fluffy kittens and cute topless girls on Tumblr as if they’re just texting their mates a ‘hey’. To them, it isn’t real.

Horror has to be real, to remind people of what is good and bad in the world. Good horror does that by scaring us deep in our hearts and souls, with the creepy sense that something is not quite right in the world. Everything is not okay, you are not okay. I am not okay, I promise. And we need to do something about it.

Now, what was that? Over there, corner of your eye…

You can find out more about A W Marsden at  http://terrierandy7.com/

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The Feckless Goblin Writing Competition: Hell in a Hand Cart

Haven’t had a writing competition for a while (purse strings in a bit of a knot) so thought I’d get one going to start off your newish year.

Okay doods and doodesses, and those in between, the competition is this:

Describe Hell in one sentence.

Your job, most excellent writer, is to give a chilling feel for Hell in ONE, yes ONE, sentence. Brownie points will be given for brevity but the winner will be the one who can instill a sense of dread and damnation in a just a few words. HINT: You don’t have to describe a physical place.

PLEASE NOTE: I got this idea whilst drinking scotch.

But how do I enter Ziggy?

Put your entry in the comments section below. You can enter as many times as you like. Entry is, as usual, FREE. All I ask is that you let your twitter/facebook/cult followers know about the competition and link them to it.

And what do I get Ziggy? For these six hundred and sixty six hours of blood, sweat and tears trying to think of just one sentence to describe the underlying essence of Hell and chill your dear readers to the bone?

The winner will get a £20 Amazon Voucher (or exchange rate equivalent), e-mailed to them the day the result is announced.

So, get writing doods and doodesses, before I renew my subscription to My Dog’s Dead Weekly.

The writing competition is open until the end of February. Whence I will call on Satan to judge your miserable attempts to describe his domain.

Now…back to me scotch…mmmmmmm…much nicer than fishcakes and rocket….hic…

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Good Horror by Smokey Joe Mayes

good horror

I love good horror stories. As far back as I can remember, I’ve loved being pushed to the edge of my nerves, being terrified to the point that I couldn’t sleep, wondering if the ping, ping, ping outside my bedroom window was the sound of killers breaking in or simply magpies pecking at the dog’s dish again.

I grew up watching Dark Shadows, Night Stalker, Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, and any horror movie that was playing after midnight on the UHF channels on Friday and Saturday night.

I never stopped to think about why I liked these, let alone why certain stories had the power to frighten me. I just loved the feeling of being carried off to another world, being in the middle of the action, and being completely powerless to alter the outcome.

While I enjoyed the crisp telling of a good horror story on television and in movies, the first book I remember being truly terrified by was Stephen King’s “The Stand.” I had just completed basic military training where 30 of my closest friends and I shared not only military training but also seemingly every germ any of us had ever encountered. For more than a month, it was a continual transference of viruses so coughing and sniffles were rampant for all of us.

As the story unfolded it became apparent that during the time I’d spent in basic training, a new strain of virus had been launched on the world. I plunged into the book as I battled my perpetual cold symptoms, every sniffle and sneeze convincing me that Project Blue had claimed another victim. Captain Trips had me and I was not going to survive to the end of King’s epic masterpiece.

After I finished the book and crawled out from under the covers, I asked myself why this book scared me, why I had bought into King’s story. Why did this book scare me when others had failed?

The answer was simple: I believed this could actually happen to me.

The symptoms of King’s killer superflu weren’t far-fetched. It wasn’t like the victims were covered in paisley warts or grew third arms in the middle of their foreheads. The onset of the superflu was marked by simple sniffles and sneezes, symptoms I’d experienced often in my life and was, in fact, experiencing as I read the book. I could have been part of King’s 99% of the population affected by this killer bug.

Over the years, as I’ve watched, read, and especially written in this genre, I’ve thought back to the simplicity with which King roped me in. I noticed that all good horror stories (in addition to good storytelling, of course) presented the terror as something that could happen to the audience. It was presented as something that could happen to me.

Of course all the other elements of a good story have to be there for the horror to work. The writer must create believable characters the reader (or audience) cares about. The theme of the story has to resonate with the reader and the action must engage them, propelling the story – and reader – forward.

If the reader isn’t emotionally invested in a story’s characters, the action will have no impact. Here’s an example (as well as shameless self-promotion): the opening scene of my short story “Love Stinks” presents a graphic murder scene. A man lies dead on the kitchen floor, a kitchen knife buried to the hilt in his lower abdomen. Blood and effluvium fill the room and a woman and small child are witness to it all.

But there isn’t any horror. There is no emotional reaction to the graphic display depicted in this scene whatsoever, in fact. It’s intentionally a simple recitation of the facts, a sterile description of the scene in the kitchen. As a result, there is no horror associated with it.

Why?

First, we don’t yet know or care about the characters involved. We don’t know the man who’s been killed. We don’t know the woman or the boy who stand over his dead body. In other words, this didn’t happen to real people because we don’t know who these people are.

Later in the same story, however, there is another murder scene involving the two main characters. At this point in the story, however, there is an emotional reaction because now we know them and empathize enough to care what happens to them. The fact that the reader cares about the characters makes this scene matter. It makes it horrible.

Another distinction between horror and any other good fiction is the nature of the action. The action must be such that it creates fear for the characters and, by extension, the reader. There has to be a genuine danger and the stakes of the characters’ conflict have to be graver than in other fiction forms.

Of course, putting a character the reader cares about in danger isn’t unique to horror. For example, in John Grisham’s “The Firm,” Mitch McDeere is a truly sympathetic character. He’s presented to the reader as very likeable, someone who has pulled himself up by the bootstraps to make a life for himself and his wife. Grisham puts this likeable character in grave danger by pitting him at odds with dangerous elements, people who want him dead and against whom there appears no defense for poor, overmatched Mitch.

But while certainly a well-crafted thriller, “The Firm” would never be considered horror. We have some of the elements of horror: good story, likeable characters, grave danger, and fast-moving action.

So what’s missing? Why didn’t “The Firm” scare me?

Because I didn’t believe it could happen to me.

I am not an attorney with a high-dollar law firm. I am not – and likely will never be – in circumstances like those faced by Mitch McDeere. I care about him making it out alive but I never once fear for myself.

In The Stand, 99% of the population was affected and I could easily imagine myself in that 99%. I could imagine myself as a writer in an empty Colorado hotel, tormented both by guests from yesteryear and by writer’s block (King’s “The Shining”). I’ve been to the beach and could be eaten by a shark (Peter Benchley’s “Jaws”). I could even imagine myself as one of the poor citizens of Haddonfield, tormented by the killing machine that was Michael Myers in “Halloween.” These horror stories all stir the nerves because they present situations in which I could imagine myself.

And triggering that imagination in the reader is the real challenge facing the horror writer. It’s not the horrific action alone that gives the audience the chills. Don’t believe me? Check out any of the “Final Destination” movies. Absolutely horrific events happen in these stories but, frankly, the stories are pure camp because the elements of a good story aren’t there. It’s gore for gore’s sake and leaves the audience laughing rather than hiding under the covers.

So the final element of delivering a good horror story is to know thy audience. The writer has to know who will be reading the story and how to manipulate their imaginations to the point that they put themselves in the middle of the action, or at least could imagine a scenario in which they could find themselves there.

In other words, the writer has to be at least as invested in the reader as the reader is in the story.

It’s the only way to make them believe it could actually happen to them.

Find out more about Smokey Joe Mayes at http://smokeyjoemayes.blogspot.com/ 

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10 Films that lived up to the original books

original books

You know how it is Avid Reader. Your favourite book is about to be made into a movie starring a major league actor and you wait with heart beating fearfully, you go to the cinema with sweaty palms…and you weep into your hideously expensive diet coke and popcorn because the director, the actors, the scriptwriters, the producers and even the damn second reserve camera man have all conspired to rip the heart out of your…yes YOUR…story.

In truth, it’s easier to find book to film failures than it is to find successes. Our Dear Avid Reader can name at least 100 films that disappoint compared to one or two that live up to the dream.

I’ve put together a list of 10 films that I think did the original books justice. This is my personal list and not based on anything other than my likes and dislikes. It’s also based on the films I’ve actually read the book for and then seen the film.

  1. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler: While the novel is one of my favourites and a great example of the genre, with great one liners and sharply drawn characters, the film is also in my top 10 list. Humphrey Bogart nails the role of Philip Marlowe and when I read the books again, I can’t see anyone else but him.
  2. Jaws by Peter Benchley: To be honest, Benchley’s novel was no great shakes and could have sunk into the depths much the same way as his shark did in the final scene of the book. It took Spielberg’s early magic to bring it to the big screen and make it one of the blockbusters of the Seventies.
  3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. Both versions were faithful tellings of Larsson’s original tale. If I had to choose I’d put the film just ahead of the book.
  4. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist: Okay, here’s an admission. I’m not keen on films that have children as lead characters. I made an exception here. The original Swedish film uses the vampire myth to tell a story of isolation and is quite a faithful retelling of the book.
  5. The Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King: Alright, alright Avid Reader, I know this is from a short story (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption) but it counts as well. Of all authors, Stephen King has the worst track record of print to film. Most of the films of his books are fatally flawed so it’s nice to see that at least one works.
  6. The Haunting by Shirley Jackson: The original attempt at Jackson’s novella is one of the most atmospheric ghost films ever – forget the sometimes hammy acting and concentrate on those breathing doors and don’t forget the spiral staircase. It was followed much later by the Liam Neeson/Catherine Zeta-Jones remake, probably one of the worst adaptations of a novel ever, ever, EVER!!
  7. Hombre by Elmore Leonard: I started reading Leonard because he writes great dialogue and it’s something I feel I’m weak on. Hombre is one of my favourite westerns, not only for Paul Newman’s stellar performance but because it has oft forgotten bad guy Richard Boone in it. The book’s not bad either.
  8. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene: Again dear Avid Reader, the original not the remake. Dickie Attenborough’s performance of the malign and ruthless Pinky still rates him as one of the best on screen psychos in my opinion. If you haven’t read it, Greene’s novel also is a brilliant insight into 50s gangland life in England.
  9. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy: I like McCarthy’s writing style in both this book and The Road. The No Country film was helped by great performances from the leads including the always reliable Tommy Lee Jones. If I had to make a choice, I prefer the book to the film but it’s a close call.
  10. Blade Runner by Philip K Dick: Known to all sci-fi geeks as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The novel is much less known than the film now. Despite being continuously dragged out with a new directors or remastered cut, Blade Runner remains one of the most enduring Sci-Fi films of the last 30 years.

Okay that’s my choice. Now where’s yours? It’s easy, as I said, to pick your bad films from favourite books, so rack your mushy brains and come up with your favourite adaptation…Answers in the comments section below as usual.

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