Where Nightmares Come From, A Must Read for Horror Buffs

Where Nightmares Come FromWhere Nightmares Come From

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a must-read collection of essays for anyone who:
• wants to write horror literature or scripts (or entertainment in various forms)
• wants industry insights that would otherwise take decades of trial/error to learn
• is a connoisseur of horror who wants richer perspective on how creators work

All the essays are well-done. There is plenty to learn from the ones focused on script-writing, even if you’re more interested in horror fiction like me. So do read them. However, based on my tastes and biases as an aspiring horror writer I’ve selected three standout essays from Where Nightmares Come From.

Pixelated Shadows: Urban Lore and the Rise of Creepypasta by Michael Paul Gonzalez

A brilliant, original exploration of how the Internet has paradoxically taken humans back to primal methods of storytelling. By osmosis, it’s also a useful guide on crafting creepy shorts for marketing purposes!

Bringing An Idea To Life Through Language by Mercedes M. Yardley

As a person who has read volumes on crafting characters and finding your writer’s voice, this is by far the most beautiful and effervescent essay I’ve read on the topic. Yardley’s personality is a bonus, though, not a gimmick–this short essay about word choice/character/voice deserves to be taught in Fiction 101s and MFAs.

The Process of a Tale by Ramsey Campbell

If you’re a fiction writer, at some point you’ve no doubt read a story and thought, I wish the author could take me step-by-step through how they pulled this sorcery off! Good news, kids! Ramsey Campbell, horror fiction icon, uses his story “The End of a Summer’s Day” to take us from idea germination to draft-by-draft processes and rewritten passages to final product. The lessons are conveyed with remarkable accessibility and humility.

View all my reviews

Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, A Review

 

 Bird BoxBird Box by Josh Malerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Why did I care about Malorie so much?

That question’s haunted me ever since I put Bird Box down.

I’ve read many post-apocalyptic novels. Some of them had characters I loved and rooted for. Some had characters I despised but through whom I experienced vicariously the darkest sides of human nature. And the worlds they struggled through to survive, though they blur now, were compelling then. Sure, the Flu-ravaged world of The Stand kept me up late into the night; The Road saw me pulling for Father and Son to survive frigid hellscapes en route to the sea.

Malorie, though…

I’m not one for hyperbole or sentimentality, but Malorie had flesh in all 250-something pages–skin in the game, as they say.

Her heart’s desires, her sole-purpose of protecting Boy and Girl, and getting them to a vague sanctuary posited and promised them by a voicemail. Rick. A voicemail from a man named Rick urged her to strive out into a world of horrors, down twenty miles of a Michigan river, so that after four years void of hope, Malorie and Boy and Girl could find some: hope. Written in present-tense, in a tight third-person point-of-view, I felt this urgency–Malorie’s–on every single line.

Maybe I loved her because of the depths she went to in order to protect Boy and Girl, one her child, one not.

You see, in the world Malerman’s created, survivors must go outside blindfolded. Some unknown form of creature, when seen, cause the person to go mad, killing themselves and/or others. It happened to many millions, including Malorie’s parents and sister. During her pregnancy, one of her more cynical housemates offers a solution. Take some chemicals, he says, and blind the newborns as soon as they exit the birth canal. That way, they’ll never be at risk of seeing the creatures to begin with.

Malorie refused.

The majority of the gore that results from one seeing these creatures is conducted off stage, implied (the death of Malorie’s parents, for example), or glossed over with narrative summary via the media discussing the horrors out there. Bird Box is wonderful and claustrophobic in that way–the point of view is so limited that your imagination is required to engage the broader implications. However, Malerman gives us one scene of true horror that involves a child. A dead one. A scene done with quiet mastery. And, not in Malorie’s point of view, serves as a counterpoint to what Malorie’s relationship with Boy and Girl is.

The boy in his Sunday’s best, propped against the headboard in his room, dead from starvation, the rot from his corpse permeating the house.

That image delivered in two sentences by Malerman, walloped an entire universe of heartache for me. Just picture the terror the boy would’ve felt after his parents died. There he is, scared of the boogeyman outside, and waiting for someone to provide him food and guidance. Neither would come. This was one of the most powerful moments I’ve come across in recent fiction.

Malerman providing a concrete example of a child suffering and dying in this world, located mid-book, gives context and gravitas to all of the struggles we’ve seen Malorie undergo to care for and raise Boy and Girl. She raised them well enough to survive to the age of four. Her training them to wake with their eyes closed, or to having almost superhuman powers of hearing, become elevated from cool to read about, to visceral maternal love.

Through thoughts and actions of hers, we learn that Malorie would do anything for these two children. What tugged at my heartstrings for the duration of the novel, though, is Malorie’s terse dialogue–by which we sense that she is keeping the children at arm’s length, in case any members of this survival trio die, the anguish wouldn’t overwhelm her.

Death seems inevitable. What are the odds that a young child, well-trained as Boy and Girl are, won’t take off their blindfolds, or curious to finally see the sun hanging in the sky, peer out a window?

Malorie barks at them.

“Boy, listen!”

“Girl, don’t talk. Listen.”

“What do the two of you hear? Listen!”

“LISTEN.”

The word listen comes to symbolize an external survival mechanism for Malorie. She needs Boy and Girl in many ways. Using their trained sense of hearing for survival on the river happens to be the most immediate. Barking orders at them, keeping them on their toes, is her way of keeping the terror she feels from coursing through their small minds. In short, her gruffness is sublime.

Every page of Bird Box feels immediate, each of Malorie’s two complimentary storylines speeding onward in present tense.

So why do I love Malorie so much?

Because she embodies the wild all-encompassing love of mothers in the trenches–the human mother bear ripping someone to shreds to protect her cubs. Again, I never considered myself a sentimentalist. However, I think Josh Malerman did something in Bird Box that I’ve seen few writers able to accomplish. Frankly, I’ve seen few brave enough to try and risk failing.

He took the concept of unconditional love, more or less a weakened cliche of an idea, and gave it emotional truth. I love Malorie because she embodies, in sharp contrast to the darkness and blindness around her, the brightest and clearest example of the pinnacles of human nature.

Love. Unconditional love.

View all my reviews

Writing Craft Lessons from Bird Box by Josh Malerman Pt. 1

I can’t recommend Bird Box by Josh Malerman enough. Maybe I’ll link to my Goodreads review of this masterpiece. But seeing as most of us are writers, I thought I’d take things from “read this” to “read this to learn how to write” territory.

josh malermanJosh Malerman made a number of technical writing craft decisions in this novel that we can learn from.

Here’s a list.

  1. Present Tense
  2. Limited Third POV
  3. Alternating Story Line Structure
  4. Simple language / “Minimalism”
  5. Delayed (or Late Entry) Planting & Paying Off

Last thing. Bird Box was published in 2014, so I’m not concerned with spoilers. Having said that, I’ll do my best not to ruin the book for you.

Let’s do this.

1. Present Tense

Sustaining a narrative in present tense is difficult. This is because the main desired affect of present tense is to give the story immediacy.

This is happening now.

Done well, the reader feels as if they’re living the action.

The pitfall is that the longer any gimmick is used, the less effective it becomes. Maybe it even becomes tiresome. The trick is to not do it in such a way that anyone in their right mind would call it a gimmick.

My take on present tense is that it’s most successful when the book couldn’t possibly be written in past tense. In workshop speak, “Justify its existence.”

I take it a step farther. I’d advise a writer to justify present tense in the first place, but then, in addition, provide mechanisms in the book that allow it for it to work at sustained length.

Josh Malerman does this masterfully.

Reasons why Josh Malerman Teaches Us A Present Tense Masterclass

The setting of Bird Box is a post-apocalyptic suburb in Michigan. There are two alternating storylines. One takes place in a house. The other on twenty miles of a river, located behind that house, as Malorie and Boy and Girl seek Rick’s promised shelter.

To begin with, in a post-apocalyptic world, the past does not matter. As a matter of survival. Modern conveniences go right out the back door with the filthy bath water, and in order to literally survive, people must live moment by moment. Where’s your next meal? A simple injury could mean infection and death, et al.

In the world of Bird Box, society was destroyed because when people see creatures from another plain of existence, their minds cannot comprehend it. As a result, they become violently mad, killing others and/or themselves. Thus, Malorie, our POV character, and every other character in the novel spends the majority of their “screen” time blindfolded.

When one’s senses are deprived in anyway, we rely more heavily on the others. Common knowledge. But think of this. Losing the (arguably) more important senses of sight or hearing, would cause you to have to focus much more carefully on the minutiae of making it through a moment-by-moment existence.

Thus, the employment of “survival mode”-justified present tense, operates on the deeper level of sensory-deprivation-justified present tense.

What We Can Learn

Simply put: how to do present tense well, and how to sustain it over the length of a book.

Put another way: the thought that should go into the big craft decisions of our stories.

Sure, part of what makes Bird Box a masterclass in using present tense is Malerman’s amazing premise/plot. But I think if we, as writers, apply this multifaceted approach to justifying the more conspicuous craft choices we make, our readers will thank us.

Farewell

I decided to turn this into a five part series. Each of the five craft lessons we can learn from Bird Box deserves its own post.

But honestly, I also knew that you wouldn’t read a post that looked like it would end up around 3,000 words long.

Hope you enjoyed part 1 of 5.

Spring Reading 2018: 7 Must-Read Horror Releases To Scare Those Winter Cobwebs Away

Spring is coming. The sun already lingers in the sky. Its warmth shines on our pale winter flesh. But as fans of horror literature, there’s no reason to totally say farewell to the cold darkness. Luckily, publishers in the horror genre have some excellent new chills to serve up for Spring 2018, from a diverse group of writers. Here are seven of the hottest Spring releases.

The Hunger – Alma Katsu (March 6)

The Hunger by Alma Katsu Cover

Everyone knows the harrowing story of the Donner Party. The ill-fated outfit of pioneers who journeyed westward only to end up cannibalizing one another while snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas. Alma Katsu chronicles their story, with vivid renderings of America’s natural beauty in sharp contrast to her unflinching portrayal of the dark outer rims of human nature. Be sure to pre-order this brilliant re-telling of an American (true) horror story with a supernatural twist.

84K – Claire North (May 22)

84k by Claire North cover

Being dubbed as a perfect read for fans of The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go, this dystopian thriller revolves around a society where Wu Tang Clan’s acronym C.R.E.A.M (Cash Rules Everything Around Me) has been fully realized. North’s brilliant premise has nothing to do with rap groups, but does explore a dark world where nothing is too precious for a price tag. For example, monetary fines for paying your way out of murder charges.

Head On: A Novel of The Near Future – John Scalzi (April 17)

Head on: A Novel of The Near Future by John Scalzi Cover

USA Today says that Scalzi has the “scientific creativity of Michael Crichton” and the “police procedural chops of Stephen J. Canell.” Perhaps commenting on America’s bloodlust, the novel centers around the Colosseum-like entertainment of the sport Hilketa. Players are robotic “threeps” (think Westworld hosts), so the sport that calls for wielding swords and hammers in order to retrieve your opponent’s head, delivers the gore to the fans, while causing no actual death. Until a famous athlete is actually murdered…

Unbury Carol: A Novel – Josh Malerman (April 10)

Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman Cover

In advance praise for this novel, horror big-wig Stephen Graham Jones said, “Unbury Carol is a Poe story set in the weird West we all carry inside us, and it not only hits the ground running, it digs into that ground, too. About six wonderful feet.” In this twisted take on Sleeping Beauty, the protagonist Carol Evers has died many times. She falls into comas indistinguishable from death. Two people know her secret: the money-grubbing husband who married her for her fortune, and the notorious outlaw James Moxie.

The Feed: A Novel – Nick Clark Windo (March 13)

The Feed by Nick Clark Windo Cover

Kirkus Reviews: “Think The Road intricately wrapped around Station Eleven with a dash of Oryx and Crake…Windo pushes all the right buttons in this post-apocalyptic mashup.” This debut novel explores what it means to be human and to be connected in our digital age. The Feed, a digital conglomerate, is our worst nightmare about social media’s pervasiveness in our lives–in real-time, every person’s emotions, thoughts, interactions, along with breaking events from around the world can be accessed. Society becomes dependent on it, and then… It all crashes, leaving people in a dog-eat-dog Mad Max fever dream.

Blood Standard – Laird Barron (May 29)

Blood Standard by Laird Barron Cover

This is being marketed more as a crime thriller than strict horror. But, let’s be honest: Laird (dare I say Lord?) Barron, horror fiction’s wunderkind, is going to weave a disturbing, macabre tale regardless of what genre his publishers call it. Here, an Alaskan mob enforcer exiled to upstate New York crawls through a seedy underworld in search of a missing girl. The Locus and Bram Stoker Award nominee, and three-time Shirley Jackson winner, delivers with this gritty venture into new noir.

The Outsider – Stephen King (May 22)

The Outsider by Stephen King Cover

What’s a horror list without the King? It looks like one the all-time greats in the horror genre took a short enough break from talking politics on Twitter, to write another nearly 600-page tome. This horror/murder mystery involves suspect Terry Maitlan, beloved small-town Little League Coach, English teacher, and father of two girls–a man possibly harboring a dark secret. Early buzz says Stephen King is back in fighting form for this one.

There you go. These seven titles should keep your freshly Spring-cleaned bookshelves and Kindles stocked. Pre-order them now, and you might save a few bucks.

Behold The Void–Nay, Behold Philip Fracassi.

https://www.amazon.com/Behold-Void-Philip-Fracassi-ebook/dp/B01N7WAWGG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1519578936&sr=8-1&keywords=behold+the+void

Buy. It. Now. $7.

Philip Fracassi is the next big name in horror. Get in on the ground floor and be a “horror hipster” who discovered him first–before he is so mainstream.

This short story collection renewed my faith in fiction as entertainment. Especially in the short fiction form.

Too many short story writers think we pay the price of admission for wispy tales, with depressed characters who stare out windows, and end on “subtle,” “ambiguous” notes.

*fart sound*

Behold The Void by Philip Fracassi delivers the goods–each story stands alone as a bolt of lighning. His characters and the plots they’re unfortunate enough to be in make you give a shit.

There isn’t a single bad story. Here are my top three (light spoilers):

  1. “Altar”
  2. “The Horse Thief”
  3. “Mandala,” the capstone novella

“Altar”

I read “Altar” on my Kindle in a cafe. People shot me dirty looks because I kept fidgeting in my seat and swearing in disbelief under my breath. That was only the second story in the book. I knew I was in the presence of a special horror genre talent—a master.

Fracassi handles three dynamic characters, a feat in itself in short fiction: a mother, her adolescent daughter, and her ten year old son. He captures their broken home, split fresh by divorce, and the swirling confusion of growing up/raising kids deftly, all while ratcheting up a tower of tension. The culmination–glorious, glorious cosmic horror!–where we literally see a community pool open up into a void, where a demon who eats children waits, mouth salivating.

Think H.P. Lovecraft without the social ineptitude and misanthropy, and you’ll appreciate how amazing this story (and Philip Fracassi, generally) is.

“The Horse Thief”

I have a special connection to this yarn. My favorite literary writer is Cormac McCarthy, author of Blood Meridian, arguably the greatest novel of all time. Many try and fail to imitate McCarthy’s mystical and effusive style and fall short at the man’s feet.

I haven’t a clue whether he was trying to evoke McCarthy in this story or not. But my God. Pitch wise and thematically and lyrically, it was close. The main character is a Mexican immigrant who steals horses, who gets roped in with a sadistic buyer, so content-wise, the shoe also fit.

I finished the story and thought to myself, if Philip Fracassi ever crosses paths with Cormac, that wise old imp is going to clap him on the back like an approving father.

“Mandala”

This novella is worth paying for as a stand-alone book. You know that tired-ass cliche people throw around about being grabbed by the throat? This novella leaves choke marks.

I can’t remember reading such taut, compelling prose. This story involving two families at their summer homes in Washington State, dealing with two intertwined tragedies, is harrowing. Literal connotation. What separates Fracassi from other writers (in any genre) is the artful way he develops his characters.

Here, the central tension is whether or not our main character Mike is going to drown. His friend leaves him handcuffed to a railing at the shoreline–when the tide comes in he must fight to keep his head above water.

In Fracassi’s hands, Mike is a real boy. We feel each excruciating physical and mental struggle that he goes through–it’s grueling. The act of reading almost leaves you to suffer the shortness of breath and the brutal sunburn that Mike does. I haven’t rooted for a character to survive as much as I did with Mike in “Mandala” since I first started reading fiction as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed pup.

Buy Behold The Void

Philip Fracassi is brilliant. I’ve bought all his other work already, and intend on ripping through it like the characters in this collection hurtle headlong into the void.

Solomon Kane: A Dark Fantasy Thrill Ride Rooted In The Golden Age of Pulp Fiction

Solomon Kane is now available on Netflix in the US.

If you didn’t know who Solomon Kane was before now (like me), here’s a pitch:

A master swordsman/warship captain who’s soul has been damned to hell by the Devil’s Reaper, must prevent his soul being dragged to hell by battling witches and demons, and stumbles into the role of Puritan warrior, saving 17th century England from the upper demon Malachi’s hell minions!

How did we miss this one!?

I’m working on a short story about a nun who wants to summon an archangel warrior in order to usher in a period of apocalyptic judgement on unrighteous Americans. Like right now. So this 2009 film directed by Michael J. Basset was right up my alley.

But I’ve always been a fan of the dark fantasy/horror sub-genre of Christians doing battle with demonic evil.

The coolest part is that Solomon Kane’s literary oeuvre dates back to 1928, when Robert E. Howard, who also created the character Conan The Barbarian, penned him into existence, publishing most of the tales in the mythical pulp-era magazine Weird Tales.

The cover from Robert E. Howard's first Solomon Kane story in Weird Tales.
The cover from Robert E. Howard’s first Solomon Kane story in Weird Tales.

Other writers heap praise on the author of heroic fantasy: Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, and Michael Moorcock among them. Horror legend Ramsey Campbell has even finished some of the story fragments of Solomon Kane’s world left by Howard.

If you want to look into Solomon Kane, I’d recommend the film that’s now up on Netflix.

Or you can also find the collected stories here.