What Monsters Walk Inside You?

After a horrid turn of events at the day job, I’m in a definite funk. There’s nothing cheery happening in my head but I don’t want to leave readers huddled behind the scratched plexiglass panes, waiting for that bus that’ll never come…so, today I’m sharing some thoughts on horror. In my current foul mood, that’s all the company I’m fit to share. If the Easter Bunny hopped by today, we’d eat fricasee tonight. With peep salad.

Antique photos are often unsettling.

I love monsters. Especially those with tortured morals and consciences that rear up at unexpected moments. Creatures that are phsyically beautiful but prone to evil actions provide excellent conflict. Entities both enticing and repulsive offer so much possibility to explore. None of those soft, furry, cutesy, don’t-get’em-wet kinda monsters on today’s menu. I prefer the graphic, multi-appendaged, mouth-goes-dry, heart palpitating beasts that scuttle through your nightmares and elevate your blood pressure even while standing in the middle of a sunny hayfield.

Most of my favorite tales center on old-fashioned simplicities like the noise in the dark, the bump of a heel on a wooden floor, the creak of a board in a room supposed to be empty. I never tire of ghost stories, especially those that stretch sticky fingers inside my psyche. There’s nothing like the sense of atmospheric concentration jangling nerve endings to the limit, triggering autosomal central nervous system responses as we react to countless millennia of conditioning when first we hear the scrabbling of claws.

That’s some scary stuff.

I’m not talking about the slasher, slice-and-dice splashing of blood across the screen and page. I get that’s a style all its own, but it strikes me as being overly dependent on shock. I enjoy the peeling away of comfort zones, one delicate shiver at a time. A good fright is energizing. The urge to hurl as steaming warm intestines spill out of a carcass…uh, no.   

For me the most inspiring scenes of fear occur when writers tap into our shared experiences and poke at our common discomforts. I like the resulting tension. That spinal tap against our collective hypochondria is fun. Consider what might happen on a lonely stretch of road…

Everyone prefers their meal flavored to their taste, and for me, a good scary story is liberally sprinkled with contrasts. It’s easy to stab a butcher knife in someone’s back (metaphorically speaking), but much more difficult to make the flesh crawl along the reader’s arms in anticipation of a shadowed figure intent on mayhem. Suggestion is powerful.

Which is creepier, the full-frontal view or catching just a glimpse of a shape? Nudity often works the same for me, I like a little left to the imagination. Our minds are clever, filling in details with what we like, prefer, and desire. Too much detail and too much information can reduce the intensity.

Remember when the audience glimpsed just the leg of an alien in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs? The sense of motion is almost inferred. There’s barely enough time for our brain to register the movement of a not-human leg disappearing into the rows of corn. If you’ve never been in a cornfield you might not realize just how creepy that setting can be…thick stalks swaying overhead, the rustling movement, the fluttering sounds, the humidity and fecund smells of soil and growth.

So effective.

That visual raised my hackles and stretched the tension to an unbearable point. In another scene the sounds of footsteps pounding over the rooftop while the family panicked inside the house where they’d always felt safe and sheltered spoke to viewers.

The ticking clock...

I like to be tantalized, and without taking this analogy too far, remind you that foreplay is important. As writers we build intrigue, escalate tension, and empower atmosphere, but then we must deliver on those promises.

D.E.L.I.V.E.R.

Wish I could turn that into a clever acronym, but right now I’ll I’ve got to offer is a black and white visual of Peter Lorre extracting the liver from some poor schmuck’s violated corpse. De-livered. Sorry. My bad.

Writers often fail to complete the scenery, especially when it comes to horror, and remember the folks who read this style of writing want to feel horrified. This is a challenge. In retrospect I can always find ways I could have drawn out the tension, increased the pressure on the reader, twisted and yanked until they writhed in anticipation. Hindsight.

Fear is contagious.

Taking the commonplace, the mundane and regular aspects of daily life, and turning them into something that pulls at our instinctual fears is at the core of horror, at least for me. Figuring this out has helped me look at other writing styles with more clarity.

I’ve decided genres develop and shift as the result of expectations. People want to be thrilled and intrigued as they solve the mystery of who killed blind old Mr. McGillicuddy for his private papers. Readers want to be romanced and charmed as they fall in love with the spirited governess who catches the eye of the dastardly handsome Earl of Stonecroft. Some of us can’t wait to discover what sort of monster has been devouring the unwary on the cobblestoned paths of nineteenth century Austria.

Care to opine about your preference in monstery bits? Lots of people don’t like scary stuff – offer up a reason for that. Do you have an all-time favorite beast from the bayou?

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  1. #1 by Traci Kenworth on April 10, 2012 - 5:18 am

    I like all sorts of things that go bump in the night to write about–vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, the list goes on.

    • #2 by Leslie on April 10, 2012 - 1:06 pm

      I like that too – and I don’t mind people mixing in all sorts of other things. There seems to be this idea that cross-platforming ideas and content is something new but it seems like the stuff I’ve read over the years has always done that. Some of the more recent stuff is also quite funny and I think it takes a really clever writer to get horror and romance and humor all twisted into the storyline. Such good stuff!

  2. #3 by Amy Shojai, CABC on April 10, 2012 - 8:31 am

    Sorry about the job woes. But excellent post, loved it! You channel your angst soooo well!

    • #4 by Leslie on April 10, 2012 - 1:07 pm

      Job woes are phhhfffzzztt. I’m almost done sulking about it – a couple more posts about offing characters, dipping people in vats of smoky acid and I’ll be over the worst of the angst. Glad you enjoyed the post! Stay tuned, more angst is coming down the pike. =)

  3. #5 by Patricia Sands on April 10, 2012 - 2:05 pm

    Ohhhh Lesann, I was starting to feel kind of trembly by the end of your post. No way I could write that stuff, let alone read it. But then answer this please – why do I love Dexter?
    You do write great scary!
    Bummer about the day job. Don’t let it drag you down!

    • #6 by Leslie on April 11, 2012 - 1:49 am

      Patricia, you make me smile. I love that you were feeling trembly…such a great word. I know what you mean about Dexter. He’s so likable even though he isn’t at all, really. I’ve completely enjoyed every season of Dexter but I only read the first two or three books. Dex is definately a bit more human in the show than he comes across in the book. It’s a fascinating read but I wouldn’t want to be inside that guys head.

      Thanks for the kudos! The day job is what it is…bah.

  4. #7 by Traci Bell on April 10, 2012 - 3:30 pm

    Hi Lesann,

    I’m not a huge horror fan. I refuse to see scary movies but I’ll watch Supernatural and The River and Harper’s Island all day long… Go figure 🙂 I find that I’m the most scared leading up to the horror act, when anything is still possible and the hint of evil is lurking just outside of the camera’s lens.

    Great insight!

    • #8 by Leslie on April 11, 2012 - 1:53 am

      I think the anticipation is what works for me – and it carries over into all these other styles too. I like suspense and horror seems to have more of that than the thrillers I’ve read. I like mysteries too but they’re more like puzzles than suspenseful. This is probably why I struggle to categorize my own work. I’ve always made fun of the ditzy goof who hears the strange noise outside and has to go inspect, only to get clobbered by Mr. Big-and-Ugly – but I suspect I would probably do the same (only difference is I’d go with a big pointy stick). =)

  5. #9 by Marcia Richards on April 11, 2012 - 8:41 am

    So you feel better about the job now after getting all that scary stuff on the page? 🙂 I had no problem with monster movies of the ’50s. I read the book version of The Exorcist, no problem. Watching that movie, well half of it, scared the daylights out of me…and stayed with me…forever. That’s why I don’t watch horror films anymore. I can’t let go of the scariest scenes and it’s mostly supernatural movies and stories that do it to me. Obviously I have some inkling the events could actually happen and I’d be running from them…forever!

    • #10 by Leslie on April 11, 2012 - 4:13 pm

      I’m sure there’s some psychiatric term for deflected angst or something, but yes I feel better. Outlets are good. There is such a difference between the visuality of movies and the detailed introspection of books – but sometimes the movie maker just hits the right visual and I can’t get around it, so I totally get what you mean. Even bad horror flicks sometimes have scenes or visuals that are truly horrifying. Just.Love.It.

  6. #11 by Eva Rieder on April 11, 2012 - 10:39 am

    Great post, Leslie. I enjoyed your descriptions of nervousness and tension. I don’t tend to read horror all that often, but in the past I loved Stephen King’s The Dark Half. I probably read it three times because I loved how terrifying it was for me. (A murdering alter ego?! Fantastic!) I also echo you and Patricia’s sentiments above on Dexter—fantastic show with great suspense, and yet there we are, rooting for a serial killer. Thanks for a delightful post!

    • #12 by Leslie on April 11, 2012 - 4:17 pm

      Thanks Eva! I’ve only read a few King novels, and I’m not familiar with that one, but I’ll put it on the to-be-read list. Isn’t it ironic how many cheer on the serial killer protagonist. Talk about confused morality! I like contrast and conflicted characters – wish there were more of them hitting the screen and the covers.

      • #13 by Eva Rieder on April 12, 2012 - 7:36 pm

        I agree! As for Stephen King, I don’t generally read him all that often either, but I loved that one so much I wore through the paper jacket. 🙂

        • #14 by Leslie on April 13, 2012 - 2:58 pm

          The first Stephen King I ever read was It. I was in college, cut classes for two days and huddled on my couch, surrounded by junk food wrappers and empty coffee cups. That was an incredibly satisfying read. Much as I loved John Ritter, the movie didn’t do the horror of that story true justice. I never liked clowns, but after It, I’d run one down if he got in my way…with satisfaction. Some stories stay with us longer than others.

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