Category Archives: Horror

It All Started with a Typo

Anyone who spends enough time talking to me about books knows that the books that really blow me away are those that show me something I’ve never seen before. They tend to be a little (or a lot) weird and while they often enjoy a cult following, their oddness keeps them away from mainstream success.

I can’t remember what convinced me to pick up The Grin of Dark, by Ramsey Campbell, but it quickly wormed its way into my consciousness. The book centers on Simon, a disgraced film critic determined to win back his pride–and, he hopes, the approval of his girlfriend’s parents–by writing a critically successful biography of Tubby Thackeray, the world’s greatest comedian during the silent film era, now relegated to barely a footnote.

It doesn’t sound like much, right? But though it may not sound like it from the description above, this book is a deeply unsettling work of horror. In his quest to uncover Tubby Thackeray’s history (did I mention Tubby was a clown?), he discovers fragmented accounts of people literally laughing themselves to death at his live performances. Bits of film Simon watches leave him deeply disturbed. It becomes apparent to the reader, if not to Simon, that Tubby’s history has been erased for a reason.

In his research online, Simon runs afoul of a troll whose typo-ridden posts challenge every point he tries to make (about ten years old now, the book’s use of the internet is dated in some ways but still perfectly relevant in others). As he pours himself deeper into his research, Simon begins experiencing strange sounds and sensations. He begins misspeaking words, sometimes the same words that his troll-nemesis does in his antagonistic posts online. He garbles sentences in ways that will maximally offend those he is speaking to, even his closest loved ones. It’s as if some force or entity is gaslighting him, scrambling his perceptions while convincing him that things he was previously sure of never happened. It’s all deeply creepy, and that’s before the typos begin appearing in the narration of the book themselves.

It happens slowly at first, so slowly that I assumed the first few were honest mistakes that slipped through editing. Regrettable, but it happens. Yet as Simon’s paranoia mounts and his behavior grows more erratic, mistakes trickle into the narration with greater frequency. Every face Simon glimpses in the street is suddenly hostile, every comment pregnant with hidden animosity. He is persecuted from every side, the whole world out to get him. Simon is being driven insane by a darkly comedic force of great malice–or maybe by his own crippling sense of inadequacy–and the book makes the reader feel that shattering of reality with disquieting power.

As Simon’s life unravels around him, the world makes less and less sense. He can’t believe anything he sees or hears. This is a book that will stick with you long after you read it. And now I’ll recount a little anecdote to you. I pulled the book down off my shelf to reference in writing this post. I went to look up some of the typos I wrote about above, hoping to quote a few to show you what I meant.

I couldn’t find any for the longest time. Despite having read the book twice, I was genuinely starting to wonder if I’d imagined them, so much so that it was a huge relief when I finally did find one. I’m… going to put the book back on the shelf now.

About the Author: Gregory D. LittleheadshotRocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His first novel, Unwilling Souls, is available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, and Dragon Writers: An Anthology. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

 

Happy Halloween!

halloweenselfiesThe dead arise
with a skeleton sheen.
Be careful when you’re out
on Halloween!

October draws to a creepy close, full of little witches, ghosts and goblins out to fill their pillowcases and plastic pumpkins with tooth-decaying treats. Remember not to take a selfie in the moonlight or you may discover you don’t look as well as you did this morning.

We hope you enjoyed our October theme of dark fiction with a twist of pulp history tossed in for good measure. There are plenty of long-deceased authors whose works survive in tattooed dead-tree format and electronic mediums. Several of our Fictorians have dark fiction works for sale, or you can even check out Gutenberg.org and search for “ghost” to find scary tales from folks like Algernon Blackwood and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. If you prefer to get a nice collection, perhaps consider Ancient Terrors Volume 1, since both authors are contained therein.

Everyone here at the Fictorians wish you and yours a delightfully scary and fun Halloween. Above all, be safe, be warm, and make sure you brush your teeth after gorging on sweets!

Taking the Brimstone and Blood Out of Horror

When it comes to writing horror a lot of readers and authors assume that the actual horror has to come from something otherworldly — vampires, werewolves, demons, etc. Otherworldly horror is cool but for some readers and authors it’s not something they enjoy. Personally, the second a demon appears in a scene I’m out. So it’s a good thing that horror is a lot more broad and versitile then that.

While the otherworldly is terrifying, the everyday is just as scary. In my opinion the otherworldly is scary because it’s the unknown. It’s unknown why they exist, why they want to harm or kill someone, and how powerful they will become if they aren’t stopped. It’ s human nature to fear the unknown which is why this works so well despite the fact that no one is ever going to be accosted by a real Swamp Thing at summer camp.

The whys may be known for the everyday threats (why a person snapped and went on a killing spree, for example) but it’s usually not known until afterward. In the moment it’s still unknown and terrifying. Add to that the fact that these are threats that actually could happen and that multiplies the fear factor. Take Silence of the Lambs. It’s not usually thought of as a horror film but Buffalo Bill and Hannibal are terrifying psychopaths. The scene where Bill’s captive discovers the bloody fingernails of previous victims in the pit? Pure horror.

Not comfortable with something that psychotic? How about this: In Joe Hill’s The Fireman (spoiler alert) the scariest people aren’t those with supernatural abilities. It’s the ordinary humans. High stress situations often bring out the worst in people and Joe highlights that in this book. The actions of the “normal” people are far more horrifying then those affected by the supernatural. Dan Wells does something similar in I Am Not a Serial Killer. In this book Dan pits a teenage sociopath against a demon serial killer. It’s a fascinating contrast! Yes, both of those examples are technically horror novels but I think that they do a marvelous job showing how the supernatural and everyday horrors can be juxtaposed to highlight the other.

How about something far more ordinary. What if your character has Alzheimers? Their memory fades in and out. As the story goes on they know less and less until they have no idea who their caregivers are. They think they’re being held against their will and try to escape but their captors catch them every time. From whichever POV you choose it’s a scary situation. The Alzheimers patient thinks they’ve been abducted while the caregiver is terrified of them getting lost in a nearby wooded area or hit by a car if they get out of the facility/house.

I feel I should mention that this type of horror should be used with care. Because you don’t have the safety of reality to reassure the reader it can linger in the mind. Also depending on the everyday horror that you use it might even overshadow the plot. It’s definitely something to be considered carefully before inserting it into your story. If that’s the exact effect you want, then perfect! But if you’re writing a light romance novel, having the villain go full Hannibal Lector on the heroine might be a bit too much. Plus it’s a good idea to at least hint at these elements being present in the blurb. A lot of real world horrors have real world survivors and the last thing any writer wants do is to unwittingly trigger a reader’s PTSD.

As terrifying as Lovecraftian horrors are, using real world horrors can make your stories far more terrifying. Whether you use a small one or a big one, it’s really useful and effective way to make your story interesting without falling into a trope.

Oh, The Horror! How Horror Fiction Differs from Horror TV and Movies

I’ve already got a confession to make, and it’s the very first line of post. This is actually one of my biggest pet peeves: when people assume horror fiction is the exact same as horror movies. But can I blame them? Both are the horror genre, so why wouldn’t someone assume they were the same?


First, let’s take a look at horror movies. Georges Melies, a French filmmaker, created the very first horror film Manior Du Diable (The Devil’s Castle). It’s about three minutes long, and reminds me of a little bit of Jack the Giant Killer from 1962. Manior Du Diable is a quirky exploration of the magic of camera work and editing at the time, but it’s also a great frame of reference in which to see horror: horror deals with the supernatural, things in which we don’t quite understand, and the unexplained.

But the actual definition of horror is much different. Horror means a very strong feeling of fear, dread, and shock, or anything that causes feelings of fear, dread, and shock (Merriam Webster).

Unlike Manior Du Diable, more contemporary horror classics focus on the later part of the definition: shock. Friday the 13th. The Exorcist. Saw. We cringe in the theater seats at these movies saying, “Oh no. Don’t do that!” and “Oh no, don’t go in there!” We cover our eyes and peek out between our fingers. We see characters getting their limbs torn/ripped/chopped/pulled/blown off. Blood and gore are a cornerstone for many a horror film, in particular the B-movie variety. Some films even go so far as including triggering subject matter, like rape and violation. But most horror movies are going after the same effect: to make the audience jump in their seats, to scare audiences. A lot of thought, time, and care is put into production in order to achieve just the right music, lighting, and make-up effects for the big scary moments and the big reveals in order to make the audience all but pee their pants.

Horror literature seems to take the definition of horror more figuratively, deeply exploring the things we find scary or shocking, things we might not be able to explain, and examines them in depth. Instead of going for the screams, horror writers go more for effect. Where horror film may adopt the literal definition of the word horror (fear, dread, shock), horror literature seems to capture more of the thrill. Part of that could also be a byproduct of the medium. While movies are a more sensory experience with sight and sound, with books, the reader is allowed to imagine as much or as little as what’s on the page. It takes time to read a book, and the mind has more time to come up with possibilities and presumptions about what’s coming. More telling, popular horror literature deals with different subject matter. While a movie’s big focus may be the blood and gore, horror lit still needs to stand on its own two feet as a story. That means strong characters and character development, some element of the fantastic, whether it be a human hell-bent on murder or a vampire, and a bare-bones foundation of a story that is more than a cheap thrill.

I’d argue it goes much deeper still. It comes down to a question: what is the purpose of a horror movie and what is the purpose of a book in the horror genre? In movies, we are given very little time to empathize with our characters before the action begins. Because it isn’t necessary. When a moviegoer pays their money to see a horror flick, they are banking on the promise that they will get a good scare. When a book buyer pays money for a horror book, they pay for a more cerebral experience: they will spend hours with the characters, get to know them, and feel what they feel as the book progresses. In a horror movie, we are watching horrible things happen to the characters. In a horror book, we are experiencing the fantastic, the uncomfortable, right along with them.

I should note that I’m not trying to diss horror films. One of my favorite movies is a horror film (The Thing). And there are many exceptions to the points I’ve brought up here. There are some horror movies that I find downright artful (Let the Right One In and 28 Days Later… come to mind), and go beyond the stereotypical horror genre. And there are certainly horror books where the only purpose is to shock and cause dread to the readers. But I’d argue you’re going to find that those are the few and far between.

The horror genre is more saturated with books like The Shining by Stephen King that, while dealing with horror elements, also deals with Jack Torrance’s fear of succumbing to alcoholism. You care about Jack Torrance as you read The Shining. The Walking Dead, the long-running comic book series and the TV show, doesn’t just deal in zombies. The Walking Dead is about what happens to humanity and how humanity changes in the wake of near-extinction and the constant threat of death. I Am Legend (the book by Richard Matheson, one of my favorite books) is about the loneliness of being the last of your kind. Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice has less to do with vampires and more to do with the question of what it means to be mortal. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is not about the monster, but what it means to be human, the power of science, and the power of creating life from death.

From Bernie Wrightson's Frankenstein
From Bernie Wrightson’s Frankenstein

Finally, the most notable difference between horror movies and horror literature has to do with who the bad guy really is. In most horror films, there is a clear line between the protagonists and antagonists. Us vs. Them. Predator vs. Prey. One force hunts the other force down. Horror books, I’d argue, more so examine the darkness that comes from within, and duality of our own nature. We can be both the good guy and the bad guy. We can have good intentions (just as Victor Frankenstein did in bringing back the dead), but instead create a monster of ourselves. What horror literature looks to achieve is to strike empathy within the reader in the most dire and uncomfortable of circumstances, not necessarily to shock or scare, but to say, “Here’s the darkness, let’s go in and look around together.”