Free Cleaning Service: Part 2

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It was the next afternoon and Jim fumbled with the lock on his old apartment door. The deadbolt finally slid back and he took hold of the knob, pulling upwards as he also swung the door inwards. He and his family had learned that this was the only way to prevent the bottom of the door from scraping across the floor, and there were little arcs carved on the tile from before they had this solution. Jim had promised that one day he would fix both the door and the tiles, but that day still had not arrived four years later.

His wife switched off the vacuum she was pushing across the old living room carpet and looked up to him in surprise. “You’re home early, I thought you said something about staying late today.”

“Unfortunately not,” he sighed, placing his hat and coat on the rack.

Unfortunately,” she repeated accusingly, her dark brows furrowing together. “You mean you’d rather not be home with your family?”

He opened his mouth to give an explanation, thought better of it, and instead shook his head and murmured “That’s not how I meant it.” What exactly was he supposed to say? ‘Unfortunate’ because a warrant didn’t come through and a homicidal maniac is roaming our streets for another day?

Sarah didn’t press the matter. Her eyes had just settled on the two casefiles in his hand and a grim look of understanding shadowed her face. She had learned during the first years of her husband’s career the significance of two files. One file meant a murderer, two meant a killer. The difference was subtle but significant. A murderer existed only in a brief, singular moment. A murderer’s work happened and then stopped. Most people became a murderer without even meaning to. A killer, on the other hand, was deliberate. It was a profession. A way of being.

Jim followed Sarah’s eyes and he winced. She hated whenever he brought the nasty trappings of his work home, but he had honestly forgotten the files were in hand when he left the office. They both stood there in heavy silence, and after a moment he broke eye contact and shuffled off towards the kitchen for a drink. Jim dropped the casefiles on the counter next to the mail, then filled a tall glass of water and took it down in large gulps. It was too cold and it stung his parched throat, but after a hot and muggy day he rather enjoyed the pain of coldness. He heard the vacuum start up again in the living room again and shook his head. It seemed Sarah vacuumed every day, no matter how many times he told her it wasn’t going to help. The fabric was too shallow and the stains were too deep. Her vacuum would never clean it, and his salary would never pay to replace it. It simply was what it was and had to be accepted. The last drops of water trickled out of the glass and he set it down as he scooped up the casefiles, a single paper falling out of one of them and resting on the pile of mail. Jim didn’t notice though, and he went to the bedroom and shut the files in his nightstand drawer, hiding them from view.

“Dad?” he heard his son’s voice call from the bedroom down the hall. “Is that you?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Hey, could you come read through this essay with me? It just doesn’t feel right but I can’t tell how come.”

“Uh, well see, I was going to catch the–” he paused as his eyes fell on the nightstand clock. 4:15 pm. He had forgotten, coming home early meant there weren’t going to be any games on the television yet. “I’m coming” he sighed in defeat, rubbing his weary face, and then lumbering down the hall to help his son.

As the two of them mulled over the essay Sarah finished the vacuuming and took a moment to stare back at the floor in complete dissatisfaction. She placed the appliance back in its corner, then made her way to the kitchen to start something stewing for dinner. She put a pot on the stovetop and started it heating, then pulled various leftovers out of the fridge and placed them down on the counter. She mechanically reached for the mail and her face brightened as she read the first item, a flier promoting a new carpet cleaning business. Free Cleaning Service. A slight smile crossed her lips and for a moment dinner was forgotten while she reached for the phone.

*

It was the middle of the night, yet sleep only came to Jim in small waves, each throwing him back onto the shores of wakefulness. He couldn’t recall the last time he had had a full night’s rest. Though he craved the slumber, he dreaded the idea of relinquishing all vigilances for hours on end. He couldn’t help thinking of how helpless it left him, paralyzed and exposed to the mercy of an unmerciful world. Jim turned his nightstand clock to check the time, but its face was blank. The power was out. He kneaded his brow with his palms, then swung his legs out of bed and exited the room.

It was remarkable how the darkness in the house seemed thicker than on other nights. As he groped about like a stranger he realized how much he depended on little things like the microwave’s clock face and the television’s indicator lights to serve as anchors, waypoints that helped him to map out his orientation in the home. Now, though, it felt like a thick sheet was smothering all of his senses, and he softly cursed as he walked full-on into a wall.

Finally staggering his way into the front room he found the sofa and dropped onto it. He almost reached for the television remote before he reminded himself that there was no power. So instead he paused and just listened. There was nothing. Not even the chirping of crickets or rumble of cars out on the street. The more he sat in the emptiness the more it unnerved him. Somehow the world just didn’t seem right in this moment. He kneaded his forehead again, pressing the palms firmly against his eyes until little fireworks appeared against the closed lids. He was so tired, so weighed down, so tainted by association. He opened his eyes and still all they saw was darkness. Shouldn’t they be adjusted to this already?

Rising to his feet he stumbled over to the deck’s sliding glass door and pulled back the curtain. Nothing. All the other apartment porchlights were out, so were the streetlights. The sky was cloudy again and the moon and stars were too weak to break through them. It was not a cool night, rather the air was warm, stagnant and clammy. It added to the sense that he had been plunged into a suffocating ink and there was nothing in his power that he could do about it.

Jim leaned forward and rested his head on the cool glass. That, at least, felt nice. He swayed slowly on the spot, closing his eyes, letting his mind rest. He lost track of time. One minute. Two, three. Though standing, Jim’s mind was beginning to stray into the subconscious. As his mind sunk from the present moment he had the sensation that he was slowly falling down and backwards. Down towards something that was reaching up for him. Something malevolent stretching up higher… folding around him… closing… and…

Jim snapped his head up and turned to face the opposite direction, his eyes fixated on the front door. Every hair on his body stood on end. He hadn’t heard anything, he hadn’t even imagined anything, but somehow it was as though he had sensed a rift. Even as he stared at the dark door the sensation was continuing to mount within him, finally breaking in a shiver that traveled the length of his spine. Without knowing why, Jim held his breath and moved as silently as possible across the room. He could feel his heart thudding in dread and beads of sweat were forming along his brow. He reached the entrance to his home and pressed an unblinking eye up against the peephole.

A man stood immediately on the other side of the door, staring back at him. The form was tall and broad, entirely shrouded in darkness save for the two glistening eyes and a row of white teeth popping into view along a widening grin. Jim had the distinct impression that somehow the man knew Jim was looking at him, was watching him watch him. Jim’s heart didn’t race anymore, it entirely skipped its beats. His mouth opened to call but only a vague rattling of air escaped his throat. His initial horror was broken with another as he realized that the doorknob was turning beneath him. Instinctively he gripped it with both hands and tried to hold it secure. Even so, the force at the other end was not to be denied and the metal rubbed slowly but surely under Jim’s sweaty palms. A weight was brought to bear on the wood and the door began to push inwards. Jim threw himself against the barrier, kicking his feet against the ground for extra force, yet the door continued, slowly but steadily inwards, the low bottom scraping along the floor now, wood and tile vibrating together in a long shuddering scream.

***

The power, and horror, of dreams comes from their ability to portray a world that is convincing and real to us, but then seamlessly interweave manifestations of the intangible: emotions, ideas, fears. You may well have a conversation with greed or literally chase after happiness. By this method they help us give voice to that which we could not speak and understanding to that which we could not think. My purpose with this story was to write a story that felt like a nightmare from the heart.

As I said in my most recent post, it was not my intention to shoehorn this story to fit a particular genre or trope, I really wanted to let it just be its own thing. As I’m sure became evident, this isn’t actually some hard-boiled detective mystery, it is a tale of being haunted by oneself, a fear of conjuring up an evil that will sooner or later come into your most inner places. The use of its main character and setting were selected not to follow some tired cliché, but rather for the way they naturally lent themselves to the central themes of danger and invasiveness.

Of course, writing a quality haunting tale is difficult to do, and at the end of the day I’m still not sure if I succeeded or not. There was an image I had in my mind of what I wanted this story to be, and there is a chasm between that and what actually has made it into the final draft. I remain convinced that what was in my head was terrifying, but how much of that was lost in translation? This is a quandary every writer will face, and I imagine one that never wholly dissipates, no matter how much experience you have. On Monday we’ll dig into this topic a bit more. Until then, if you missed out on the first half of Free Cleaning Service you can go to this page to view the story in its full form, and you can also go here to see every story that I’ve posted on this blog. Have a wonderful weekend!

 

Cliché vs Story

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Some stories are timeless, but most are not. In fact, many a story that grips us when first experienced will become drab and lifeless the second or third time around. There is, of course, a very simple reason for this: more and more, media is designed with the fresh-newcomer experience as its sole focus. This means emphasizing on spikes of short-lived emotion instead of cultivating a long-lasting meaningfulness, which results in something like a “fast-food” story. They are lesser quality and will disagree with your digestion later, but they sure do look flashy and are pumped full of senses-pleasing fat and sugar. And, like blowing the sugar coating off of an otherwise bland pastry, each of these stories is immediately less palatable once you get past the shallow fluff. This has directly contributed to our become such a spoiler-averse society. Once I know who lives and who dies, who turns evil and who is redeemed, there is little left of the story that is actually interesting.

While this unfortunate trend exists in films, novels, and games alike, for this post I’ll draw each of my examples from the movie industry as its shorter-length format is especially susceptible to this weakness. In Hollywood, action films are scheduled for the summer months and horrors are scheduled for the fall, each entry crafted to ride a targeted wave of nostalgia in their season and wring out as much profit as possible before getting dismissed to the discount bin forever after. Let’s take a look at how a few specific genres focus on that first-time experience at the expense of each repeated exposure.

Comedy. Nothing is ruined by knowing the end from the beginning like a joke, a witty zinger just will not land if the audience is quoting it alongside of the main protagonist. Even worse, once you know what the punchline being built up to is, you may realize that much of the story is nothing more than setup for it, as opposed to actual plot development. I personally find that most comedies are only worth revisiting either when it has been so long that I’ve forgotten how each bit pays off, or else when I can share it with a friend who has never seen the comedy before, and thus laugh vicariously through them in their first-time experience.

Action. The summer blockbuster, the high-octane flick, the hero who can stand up to anything…except repeated viewings. A chase or fight sequence may be thrilling the first time you see it, but each punch and crunch just feels a little less impactful with each time you see it repeated. Soon you start to see the sequence more and more for what it actually is: choreography, two actors simply repeating an endlessly-rehearsed set of moves. The movie is showing its seams and the magic is broken. Also, the effects-heavy sequences that were considered cutting edge and photorealistic when released, stick out like an immersion-breaking sore thumb in as little as a year or two later.

Horror. Modern horror films eschew true fear and instead heap cheap gore and jump scares on the audience. Sure, this gives a quick gut-punch on the first viewing, but just like the punchline in the comedy, once you know what’s about to pop out from around the corner the effect becomes worthless. Predictable monsters aren’t scary and gore that was once nauseating will soon become  mundane. After the startles and discomfort subside, you’ll realize that these stories have hamstrung their own pacing, because you cannot create any sort of meaningful tempo or cadence while also maintaining a constant barrage of adrenaline spikes.

Romance. These stories are almost a meta example of the very topic we’re talking about. The vast majority of these focus solely on capturing that first-time excitement of meeting someone new and falling in love with them. And, like many real-life romances, repeated exposure transforms the initially charming quirks into grating pet-peeves. This first meeting is being cute just for the sake of being cute, isn’t it? This breakup at the end of the second act is pretty cliché, isn’t it? The music swelling at this vow of undying love is just manipulating an unearned emotional response from me, isn’t it?

Now, lest I sound as though I hate all movies, let me emphasize that not every film is so vapid and short-lived, just that too many of them are, and all for a lack of even trying. There are excellent counter-examples in each of these genres though. Groundhog Day is a comedy that holds up by interweaving its jokes with the main character’s development. He begins as a cynical and sharp egoist, and that is exactly the style of humor that is employed. As he gradually transforms into someone more sentimental and kind, though, the mood follows suit. In the Bourne Identity the action remains compelling in how it actually embraces the idea of a man rehearsing hand-to-hand combat moves ad nauseum until he can repeat them by muscle memory alone. This lends the choreography an honesty and makes both the amnesiac character and the audience uncertain of the depths of his potential. The Sixth Sense begins with creepy characters and menacing ghosts, but then goes out of its way to disarm them by revealing that they only seek to be helped. Then it shifts focus to the deeper fears of everyday jealousy and grief, phantoms that will haunt you for far longer. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is a romance that takes place long after the typical first falling-in-love encounter. In fact, it takes place at a critical juncture where the relationship, and even life, is threatened to end forever. In an allegorical fashion it drills down to the fundamentals of both how love is lost and how it can be saved, thus remaining just as relevant today more than 90 years later.

There’s one thing each of the examples I’ve given have in common. They are stories first, and genre-pieces second. The easiest way for a writer to fall into the trap of making a short-lived story is to sit down with the intention to write the most humorous, or the most exciting, or the most frightening story, or the most romantic story ever told. With time that most adjective will fade out, and all that will be left is the…story. If that story is weak, the audience will soon see it for what it is and wonder how they ever tolerated such drivel. Writing should be approached with the intention to just try for the best story, and then incorporate themes of comedy, action, suspense, romance, or whatever else only as it pertains to the subject of that tale. If you’ve written an outline that calls for “some sort of epic chase sequence” as a bridge between the actual scenes where plot happens then you’re forcing action on top of a non-action story. If your story actually needs a chase, that chase should be inseparable from the plot, baked into its very DNA.

When a story is well composed and true to its core then two things happen. The first is that knowing the end from the beginning does not lessen the experience. If anything it only heightens it because now you can recognize the expert craftsmanship as it is happening. You notice how this early scene is effortlessly setting up for the character-inflection that follows in the next, you pick up on how the emotions evoked by the first half is contrasted by the opposite trajectory of the second, you take the whole work in as a single piece of art where every stroke supports every other. The other effect that happens is you get sucked into the premise and believe in the characters. Though you may still remember the punchline, anticipate the betrayal, know where the monster is hiding, and recite the closing vows by heart, you can’t help empathizing with the characters’ tension in the moment. These aren’t actors playing pretend anymore, these are real characters who you believe are experiencing all of these moments for the first time, and you always find their journey incredibly fascinating.

At this point we are brushing up against one other differentiator between single-season stories and timeless tales, one that has to do with whether the story’s focus is on the character’s experience or on the audience’s. There is a time and a place for both, but to do this topic justice would require a separate post all of its own. For now I’ll just say that for the types of stories we’re discussing now, it is often better to go the route of prioritizing the character’s experience and trust the audience to empathize with them. First, though, we need to conclude our Free Cleaning Service story. My intent in that title is to not manipulate the reader with short-term emotional hooks, or try to shoehorn the tale to meet some genre cliché. Instead I wish to imbue the suspense and dread deep into the atmosphere of my tale and allow them to manifest themselves as something more corporeal naturally and whenever they see fit. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out!

Free Cleaning Service: Part One

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Jim Morgan ducked under the police tape and pulled his coat tighter against the wind. He moved with hurried steps, little splashes of muddy rainwater billowing around his ankles. He gave a final glance upwards to the dark, cloudy sky, then pushed through the creaky wooden door to the cozy diner within. The layout of the place was extremely basic. A dozen circular tables crowded around the floor, with a cashier’s counter fronting a kitchen along the left wall. Across the back wall was the occasional window offering a view of the neighboring Main Street, or at least they would have been under fairer weather. On a stormy night such as this, the interior lights overpowered the external darkness and the windows became large black mirrors. Jim was drawn to the image of his duplicate in the glass, watching him come in from the cold, cup his hands to his mouth, and blow into them for warmth.

“Sir?” a police deputy stood up from his chair and approached him. The officer couldn’t have been older than twenty-two, and the way he nervously loitered around made it clear he had no idea what one was supposed to do at a crime scene.

“Detective Morgan,” Jim gestured to himself, but didn’t trouble to pull out his badge to prove it. “Let Barry know I’m here, if you will.”

“Barry?” the young man repeated, confusion wrinkling his brow.

“Detective Barton,” Jim clarified and comprehension dawned on the deputy’s face. “He phoned that he wanted to see me here.”

“Yes, sir, of course,” the officer said, yet he remained on the spot, shifting his weight around uncomfortably. “It’s just that—well, he’s occupied with the crime scene presently.” The young man started to turn his face in the direction of the kitchen doors, but he halted halfway through the motion and instead jerked his thumb over the shoulder instead. Now it was Jim’s face that broke in comprehension.

“You haven’t been in there yet, have you son?” he asked bluntly. The deputy dropped his gaze to the floor and shook his head. For the first time Jim paused to look at the man’s badge and read his name. “There’s no shame in not wanting to see, Ellis,” he said compassionately. “And I’ll tell you right now there’s no special trick to stomaching that sort of stuff, it’s just hard. Always is.” Ellis looked back up and Jim held eye contact for a few moments, trying to remember a time when his own face had been that innocent. Still, if the man was expecting to be let off the hook, he was about to be disappointed. “But that’s the job,” Jim said flatly. “Go tell Detective Barton that I’m here.”

There was a firm finality in Jim’s tone and Ellis didn’t try to argue the point, instead exhaling slowly and dejectedly shuffling off towards the kitchen door. Meanwhile, Jim turned and walked deeper into the diner, making his way to the dark mirror of a window where he could peered closely at his own reflection. To be sure, there wasn’t any of that old innocence left in him now, and not even the miles of tracks under his eyes did justice to the distances he had traveled for this job. He was tired. Tired in ways he couldn’t begin to explain. His blinked, then so did his reflection.

“Jim?” A voice called him out of his reverie and he spun around to see Barry emerging out of the kitchen. Barry had barely cleared the door before Ellis followed behind him, much paler in the face now and moving with nervous, rapid footfalls. Barry strode the rest of the way to Jim with a few giant paces, and the two shook hands with a well-practiced familiarity.

“Hello, Barry,” Jim said, thus concluding the formalities of their greeting. Now they could get to the heart of the matter. “You said you wanted to see me?”

“Right. And you brought the file I asked for?”

Jim nodded, pulling the manila folder out from the dryer confines of his overcoat and handing it to Barry who began thumbing through its contents. The folder was aged, but the case was not. In fact it was so recent that Jim’s thumb still bore a black mark where he had smudged it against the freshly-typed details of the case, details that were similarly smudged across his mind.

Harold and Ava Harrison, both in their late sixties.
Both retired.
Found dead in their apartment, by the landlord who had responded to a neighbor’s report of loud shouting.
No sign of forced entry.
Little sign of struggle.
All in broad daylight, yet with no one having seen the perpetrator.

Those last details were a bit uncommon, but not enough to make the case particularly stand out. Thus far Jim had made little progress on the investigation, but that was how many of these went.

Barry had gone directly to the section for evidence. Jim knew there wasn’t much there. A couple statements, the phone records, and some stray pieces of mail taken from the home. Barry selected one of these and held it up in its plastic bag. Jim squinted at the paper. Free Cleaning Service.

“The new carpet cleaning business?Jim asked, remembering the advertisement.

Barry nodded.

“Yeah…come to think of it, that was one of the bits you helped me follow up on, wasn’t it?”

Barry nodded again. “That’s why I remember it.”

“Sure…what was it they said to you?”

“Not much. Was just a one-man operation, said he didn’t keep track of names or addresses, just went to people when they called. Asked if he had been to the Harrisons, he said no, said sometimes he had to turn people down because of conflicting schedules.”

Jim nodded, memories of Barry’s report trickling back. At the time it had been buried like one drop of data within a stream but now, when it stood on its own, it did seem a bit odd. “Strange for a one-man operation to be sending out free services. Seems like he’d never be able to keep up with all the calls.”

“That’s true. Of course, you didn’t know that when you sent me there. Was there something else that made this flier stand out to you.”

Jim closed his eyes and called back the remembrance of that day. “Yeah,” he said finally. “I was trying to piece together why it would’ve happened in the middle of the day and with no forced entry. A service-man just made sense for it.”

“Good thinking,” Barry agreed. “It would also explain an owner found dead in his diner, again with no forced entry but this time in the evening… after closing hours.”

At last Jim was seeing the connection, and the reason why Barry had called him down here. “You found another flier.” It wasn’t a question.

Now it was Barry’s turn to reach a hand into his overcoat, pulling out a plastic bag with an identical Free Cleaning Service flier in it. “The owner was holding it.”

Jim closed his eyelids and exhaled slowly. As if things hadn’t been bad enough already… A part of him wanted to resist agreeing with Barry, simply because he didn’t want to face the conclusion that stood at the end of this this line of reasoning. But that was the job. He opened his eyes and blinked them back into focus. “Alright, we’ll work it together from here on. I can go back to the office and fill out for a warrant on the cleaner’s place. If we get it before end-of-day tomorrow then maybe we can wrap it up in a hurry.”

“Works for me. Tell you what, though, I’ll go back to the office for the warrant. You can head home, or else have a look around here if you want to see.”

Jim scoffed derisively. “No one wants to see, Barry,” his eyes glanced briefly back to Ellis who had sunk back into his chair from before. “But yeah, I’d better go check it out. See you tomorrow.”

Barry nodded, handed Jim the casefile he’d been putting together, then left out the front door. Ellis looked up as he left, then back to Jim, evidently uncertain of which detective he was supposed to remain with.

“Go call the morgue to come for the body, I won’t be long,” Jim told him. “Then go ahead and get home, I’ll wait here for them.” As the young man enthusiastically left his perch for the phone, Jim swallowed something back that had been rising in his throat and strode towards the diner’s kitchen.

*

Jim held the kitchen door open for the morgue workers as they shuffled out, each carrying an end of the black bag. When they were through he hurried ahead to do the same for them at the diner’s main entrance. They thanked him as they progressed to their hearse and he grunted in response. He stepped back into the empty diner and gave it one last sweeping glance, then strode to each of the room’s chandeliers to turn them off. The thought occurred that it was a strange thing to do, seeing as there was no living owner to thank him for the gesture. Still, courtesy even to the dead, wasn’t that right? Courtesy especially to the dead.

He approached the last table, the one set underneath dark window he had used for a mirror before. He peered back at his reflection and asked himself what he saw there. Was he imagining things, or had a new line appeared under his eyes that very night? His reflection blinked, then so did he.

Jim turned back to the last chandelier, reached up, and turned it off. With the last light doused, darkness swept through the room and the light within the diner no longer overpowered the blackness without. Now visible for the first time was a man outside, staring in through the same window. The man was tall and thin, his hair a motley mess of dark strands, framing a shockingly pale face. His eyes were open in a wide stare, glistening as though they bore unshed tears. His lips were curling back and opening, exposing his teeth in a broad grin. Jim’s back was already turned though, and he remained oblivious to the watcher as he walked to the opposite wall, out the front door, and into the night.

***

As I said in my post on Monday, a good horror story should take residence in the core, fundamental fears inherent to the human condition. My purpose in this story was to focus on a few, such as the fear of innocence lost, the fear of being watched, the fear of being our safe places being made unsafe, and the fear of being powerless. The first two of these you can see in the first half already, and the other two will crop up in the conclusion next week.

One thing that I debated when writing this story was the portrayal of Jim Morgan as the gruff and jaded police detective. I felt that that was such a tired trope, and I didn’t want to be going that route just to follow some trend. As I thought about it, though, I felt that within the context of this story it was essential for his character be this way. At his core, Jim fears that he has been tainted, that he has walked through a dark mist and now wherever he goes a part of it might be following him. It is a fear we all have experienced in our moments of guilt, and I could think of no better way to establish it than to write him gruff and tired.

This question of whether your story decisions are being motivated by its needs versus just shoehorning it to match a certain trope or genre deserves further examination, though, and next Monday I will discuss the point further. I’ll see you then.

Shadowy Corners

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For my profession I work as a software developer, so it’s not much of a surprise that I find the technology sector fascinating. I’m always interested in new developments, hardware and software alike, so when virtual reality first came on the scene I was anxious to give it a try. For the most part, the showings there have felt lackluster and halfhearted, but a few standouts have been quite exceptional and remained with me for a long while since. One of my favorite experiences was a short-film called Sonar, which placed the viewer at the helm of a small space-faring craft, following the trail of a crew that went missing some time ago. The story began with a sense of intrigue, soon became ominous, and finally concluded in utter terror. I loved every second of it. Repeated viewings of the piece still held the same punch, due to both the quality of the work as well as the extra immersion made possible by the VR medium.

Now, in general, I am not a fan of mainstream horror stories. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for suspense, I’m a sucker for intrigue, I relish foreboding and tension, and I’m always up for mounting dread. But more and more the genre has lost touch with those core tenets in exchange for just increasing the amounts of violence, gore, and jump scares. True fear is not the same as queasiness, and none of these cheap parlor tricks hold a candle to a truly terrifying encounter. In contrast, consider the last great nightmare you had, one that brought you to a point of terror so profound that your mind revolted and snapped you back to consciousness before the scene could be completed. Now that’s true fear.

Of course these sorts of sleeping horrors are, by their nature, unpleasant experiences, yet it is worth considering what value there is in that unpleasantness. One does not need to be a sadist to appreciate that nightmares are some of the richest dreams we ever have; the images are so very vivid, the immersion is so very deep, and the emotions are so very, very real. Beyond that, though, the fact is our core fears are, well, core to us. Frightening experiences, therefore, have the ability to help us to better understand our own selves. Our basic fears influence much of what we do, think, and believe, and coming to learn the names of these fears is our first step to gaining closure with them. On the one hand, understanding these fundamental worries helps us guard against the tragedies which we can prevent, and on the other it helps us to gain acceptance for the ones which we cannot. In this sense there is a degree of interest in fear that can be healthy, when we face them with the intention to see our own souls.

Of course, good horror authors know and utilize this when crafting their wakeful nightmares. They understand that the extreme and unrealistic dreads we hold, the mythical and supernatural terrors we conjure, all of these are only the personifications and exaggerations of the basic fears at our cores. Deep down we don’t really expect to be mutilated in some horrifying way, but we are afraid of pain, particularly of pain that is greater than our ability to bear. We don’t really expect to be murdered or devoured by a beast, but we do dread being in another’s power, of losing control in our lives. We don’t really know many people who have been possessed by demons or mind-controlling aliens, but we do see the reality of loved ones losing their higher cognitive processes and sense of self. As such, the good author does not try to scare the reader with a monster, they scare them with what the monster represents, with the way it speaks to and provokes a reaction from the fundamental fears that are common to all humanity.

Washington Irving was one author that certainly grasped this concept. In his classic tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow he presents a monstrous being, one that is supernatural and terrible, and one who relentlessly pursues the protagonist with forces of inhuman evil. Yet in its closing moments we realize that this monstrous being was actually a fabrication. The headless horseman in all his dreadful glory was nothing more than common human envy dressed up once in Brom Bones’ costume and clothed a second time in Ichabod Crane’s superstitious imagination. The revelation that the villain of the story is a mere mortal who menaced and murdered Ichabod does not make the tale any less ghastly, though, if anything it only makes it more so. This speaks to an evil that is far more sinister because it is far more common and believable; the evil of what jealous men will do to secure their own interests.

Another excellent example is in the theatrical production Wait Until Dark. Here we have a heroine, Susy Hendrix, who is menaced by a group of hardened drug dealers and thuggish con artists. These dangerous men mean business, and a number of lives are lost before the final curtain falls. None of that is where the real terror is, though. What is truly frightening is that Susy Hendrix is completely blind. There is something horrible in the audience’s being able to see the obvious dangers which are shrouded from her in eternal shadow. Men are laying traps and drawing weapons right in front of her and she doesn’t even know it. The reason why this is so affecting is because it speaks to a core fear we all hold, a fear that even in broad daylight there may be unrecognized threats lurking right before us.

In fact, both The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Wait Until Dark can be considered as examinations of that same core fear: the fear of disguised danger. If we tally all the things we do to keep danger at bay, we realize that safe-living is a truly herculean effort. We lock our doors, buckle our seatbelts, look both ways, check expiration dates, phrase things carefully, wear thick boots, apply mosquito repellant, put the cover on our pool, discharge static electricity, turn off circuit breakers, signal each turn, apologize quickly, brush our teeth, back away from stray animals, have regular check-ups, stretch before we run, and so very, very much more. And we do all of this before anything bad has even happened. Even so, there lurks in all of us the sense that there are dangers we cannot account for. We realize that no matter how vigilant we are, threats remain in every place and every hour, things we do not see, forces we cannot quell. We become paranoid, consumed not by a fear of what is lurking in the dark, but simply of what might be. However, with the help of stories that give us insight to this unpleasant aspect of our lives, we may come to accept the uncertainty of life. That reality may still unsettle us, but it does not have to paralyze us. We can just live, and let come what may.

Truly frightening tales will always have a unique quality of being as fascinating as they are unnerving. Next Thursday I’m going to take my own stroll down a haunted path and hope you’ll be willing to join me for it. My purpose will simply be to draw out a root fear or two that applies to all of humanity. If I am able to succeed, the story will be discomforting in how it holds a mirror to the most basic human fears. Whenever this happens, it leaves a sensation that the tale somehow knows each one of us on a personal level. So you’d better watch out, those monsters aren’t just going for Mina Harker and Dr Jekyll, they’re coming after you!

Sculpting Light

lighted candle
Photo by Rahul on Pexels.com

The Matter Tool

The “matter tool” was small and held in the hand like a paintbrush. Its small, flat tip had the curious ability of being able to both deposit and siphon matter with the flick of a switch. Thus, where a traditional artist would etch the mere image of a hill and valley, the “matter tool” was utilized to actually create literal hills and valleys, tunnels and towers, and all manner of strange geometric patterns.

Intriguingly, the ease of use also disvalued the tool. As creation was effortless, many people made rampant and effortless creations. Always the same sorts of things: bridges, tunnels, mazes, pretty geometric patterns, few endeavored to try something outside the box. Of course the true artist learns not only how the medium has been used in the past, but also how it can be used to create that which was never conceived of before.

That brings up a question, though, does the artist actually create or merely discover? There is an idea expressed that the sculpture is already existing in the rock, and it has only to be uncovered. I watched a sculptor working on a large slab of granite, noting that it was nothing more than a cocoon. As the artist created a rough-form I noted he was merely removing the larger parts of the encasing excess. As the finer details were etched onto the face I saw that he was merely pulling the clinging residue off the polished form that was within. All the artist had to do is find it in there. Perhaps we are all of us pristine sculptures burdened by excess yet to be removed.

I looked back to see what had become of the “matter tool”, and now found a new use for it. It was the complement to the sculptor’s work. Taking it in one hand and grabbing a block of stone in the other I began hollowing out the rock’s interior. I twisted and gouged its insides, transforming the block into a mold for the figure of David. It was a sculpture’s negative. When I was done I closed up the bottom of the hollow cavity and set it on a pedestal in an art gallery. All anyone could see was the flat external faces of the rock, unknowing that the art was within. I knew later sculptors would come to dig the form out of it, that is what they know to do. The irony, though, was that since the sculpture was the absence of stone, digging it out would destroy it.

Our Purpose on Earth is to Measure Mountains

Of course, while some people wish to carve the stone, others seek only to measure it. I now stood on the peak of a mountain on a windy, blue day. Beside me were geologists with their surveying instruments, measuring angles to distant peaks and scrawling on notepads a tome of figures. That done, they took the numbers and from them calculated the exact altitudes of the main land features all around them. They too are not creating, only discovering. They do not invent the heights of the landforms, they only discover what the inherent measurements already residing in them are. Their artistic work is the numbers and the data, all which serve as an image representing the original form, just as a sculptor’s figure is an image to represent the original form.

Why do we measure and draw the world? The world already exists, yet we seek to discover and recreate it constantly, seeking for lessons from the natural ways things are. Do we study the ascensions of mountains that we may learn how to raise our own selves to a higher nature? Do we weigh the mass that they bear upwards so that we may learn how to better balance our own burdens?

Of course, if you’re going to measure this world you have to get up high. The taller you get, the more distant your horizons will be. Not only that, but you have to stand clear of clutter. You may be elevated to a peak and have miles of rolling landscape ahead, but if you stand near a wall, though only seven feet high, then all the miles of open plains and the distant mountains behind them are hidden. All you can see is the wall.

There are intangible walls as well. You might be in the clear open, but veiled in the darkness of night. To be visible, every form requires that first it must not be obstructed, and secondly that it must have a medium of light to carry its image to the beholder. Otherwise it may as well not exist at all.

Light-Forms

Light, of course, extends forever. However its visible range is quite limited. For what begins as a concentrated streak of illumination quickly spreads apart so finely that it appears to dissipate and loses all definition. What if light were to be more cohesive and physical?

I imagine to myself volumes of light, rectangular prisms that maintain a consistent form, with well-defined faces and edges. It does not fade at any end, but rather holds the same intensity throughout until it comes to an abrupt closure at bounds of one foot by two feet by three feet. Each of these volumes is capped by a thin sheet, which is the source of the light. The sheet is very thin, more so that paper, and is a malleable substance, though sturdy enough that it can hold a shape and not tear. Each one is perfectly translucent.

The volume of light seemed somewhere between a wave and a solid, it was in appearance very soft and hazy, as though millions of minute dust particles were lazily floating within its form. I decided to test the physicality to the beam, and so I turned one of the sheets downwards and let it go. It dropped a short distance and then remained suspended in the air, supported entirely by the light-volume that now rested on the ground. I placed another sheet above the first, turned downwards in the same manner, expecting it to stack. However, because the screen of the first was transparent, the light of the second passed through it, resulting in the first sheet rising until it collided with the second sheet, each of them resting together on a stack of light twice as high as either originally projected. I added a third sheet and the column of light was three times the height now.

For the fourth sheet I did something a little different. I angled it so that its column of light entered my main one at a shallow slope. When I let go it held its place, creating a branch from the trunk. I placed several more extending off of this branch until it grew out five light-volumes out to the side. From this I realized the usual requirements of balancing a fulcrum did not apply to this light sculpture, as the light was entirely weightless. For the next while I continued adding more and more sheets in every imaginable angle and connection. Branches grew off of branches, beams were stuck in upside-down, sheets were folded to form curves in large dome-like arcs. Gradually I had constructed a sprawling web all around me.

At this point I had explored stacking the sheets as thoroughly as I cared to, and now turned my attention to further pursue folding the thin sheets and seeing what became of the light that emanated from it. I grabbed a fresh sheet and curved it up into a concave curve, resulting in a volume of light that resembled a cone. The light did not pass beyond the intersection point that was the tip of the cone, instead it remained bounded within, increasing in intensity where it overlapped.

An interesting property I noted was that where the light was more intense, the surrounding space around it grew more dark. I do not mean it appeared darker as an illusion, but rather it literally grew darker, as if to counteract and balance the light that it neighbored. I decided to invert the darkness and the light, now resulting in a room that was filled with hazy light everywhere, except for at my cone of darkness, that darkness now being more intense at the peak of the cone and the room-light more intense where surrounding that peak.

Voids

I changed my dark cone for a sphere, and that sphere grew and became a world. It was a world that was nothing but a hollow, dark void within, but over which lay a thin crust of light and matter. All flora and fauna, all that we perceive the earth to be, all of it was within that thin crust of light. As before, it was apparent that this opposing crust of light was in direct balance with the void beneath, as if all our nature exists only to balance out a core blackhole.

At first the void was perfectly uniform in its distribution of nothingness, but in swirls and eddies it started to intensify in some places and lessen in others. Where the void-sphere deepened in its nothingness, the crust of life grew outwards and burst with life, bulging out thicker and upwards, literal mountains growing before my eyes. Elsewhere the void-sphere lessened in its deep nothingness, and so, too, the crust thinned and faded, until void and crust blended into a neutral gray haze that was neither form nor lack of form. The depths of the void continued shifting and the areas that were intense grew more intense still, eventually all pooling together to a specific point, all the rest of space consumed by the gray monotone.

All my attention was wrapped on that single deepening point of intensity, watching as all of the life and creation became intertwined in one another, such that I lost any ability to distinguish between rock and plant, all blending into one column pressing out into space, a union of both of geology and botany. So tightly were they coupled that all their colors, the greens and blues and reds and browns and yellows, all of them bled together and became a pulsating and glowing white light. The column extended with increasing rapidity and soon became a single beam of infinite light extending through the heavens, a single photon to raze and burn through all the cosmos.

***

As I said in my post on Monday, sometimes a story can exist outside of a traditional character arc or chronological plotline. Sometimes it can be freeing to start with an image and just run with it wherever it wants to go. To the mind this serves as both active exercise and relaxing meditation all at once, and it promotes both emotional and mental wellness and stability, which is already its own reward. It’s not too often that we get to act as both the inventor and discoverer at the same time, but that is the reality here. What is happening is your subconscious is composing, and your conscious is observing. Your conscious does not know what the subconscious is going to construct, and so it is entirely possible, and likely, for you to end up surprising yourself.

Also, it’s entirely likely that your little stream-of-consciousness journey might bring you to some personal insights that are helpful in your life. The sequence that I wrote above was something I pursued on a whim once, with no specific message or intent in mind. Even so, there are elements that came up in it that I personally find thought-provoking, calming, and useful.

As you might have noticed, the irregular transitions make for a piece that feels a great deal like moving through a dream. Though it is a more grim subject, I do think it is important to explore the alternative, too, the motions and motives of a nightmare. On Monday I will discuss about how to bring meaningful elements of these into your stories and will follow it up with an example on Thursday. Until then, sweet dreams!

Wandering Thoughts

adult book boring face
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So my morning went a little something like this:

• I woke up
• I brushed my teeth, got dressed, grabbed my sack lunch, and left for work
• I took my morning meetings and started preparations for the team’s upcoming conference presentation
• And this continued until lunch

Also, my morning went a little something like this:

• I woke up
• I remembered that this evening I had a scheduling conflict between helping a neighbor move or going with some friends to catch a movie
• I spent some time convincing myself that my friends need me, and being there for them is just as worthy of a cause as lifting furniture
• In my morning meeting someone thanked me for how I had helped him when dealing with a difficult customer
• That praise for a kindness I had done pricked my conscience. I messaged my friends to say I wouldn’t be able to make the movie tonight

There are two completely different stories in these timelines. One is the story of what happened on the outside, the other is within. These aren’t the only two possible stories, either. Another telling might just focus on my transitioning emotional states, and still another might blend my waking moments with my daydreams. Many stories will, in fact, take a few of the possible arcs available and blend them together.

Without a doubt, the most common approach is to focus on the chronological and factual events, but interweave them with a character development arc as well. Often in this approach the author looks for clever ways to have the separate paths mirror one another, and also may add little variations such as swapping between different timelines or maintaining two seemingly-unrelated plotlines that eventually converge. These are minor alterations, though, and the basic flavor remains the same for almost every story made. Because this sort of template is so common it allows for very direct comparisons between all manner of different stories no matter their genre, and there are entire critical reviews that essentially do just this.

Of course, there are exceptions to this most-common template, stories where the transitions seem jarring and disconnected. In these one most realize that the connecting tissue between moments is not based on time, character, or setting, but rather on the emotional tone. Thus, the scenes may feel similar, even if they don’t look so. Because of how much this approach flies in the face of most mass-media stories, these sorts of tales are usually considered non-traditional or experimental, and this perception has resulted in creators reserving this structure for more introspective endeavors. Less likely is the reader to be following some external character’s narrative as they are to be shown a mirror to their own insides. The scenes do not derive their meaning from what happens on the page so much as what happens within, an emotional journey of the audience’s own thoughts and feelings, each following sequentially and naturally towards some sort of personal resolution.

Examples of this sort of storytelling would include the Tree of Life by Terrence Malick, where we cut from scenes of a family at various points of time to celestial bodies floating through space to prehistoric dinosaurs. And through it all is a thread of the interconnected nature of life, that we are all parts of one cohesive whole, just as how individuals are conglomerations of uncountable smaller pieces. Another example would be Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which presents a most eclectic and erratic sequence of scenes, progressing from a man’s unexplained transformation into a beetle, to his family’s revulsion of him, to his pitiful death, to the family selling their business and moving away, to the parents discussing that their daughter is well-ready for marriage now. And then it ends. Rather odd, isn’t it? It’s easy to be dismissive of such a plotline, and yet it is reminiscent of the stories we tell ourselves every night in our dreams, where bafflement and unexpected metamorphosis, both in character and tone, are simply par for the course.

In fact, the comparison of these sorts of stories to dreams is an apt one. This sort of emotional-free-association scene-crafting was no doubt derived from the mind’s natural ability to journey through a stream of consciousness. In our sleep, daydreams, and meditations we learn that in the mind facts and fantasies are not separate entities, each naturally follows the other. The flowing mind does not concern itself with chronology or accuracy, and it certainly does not feel obligated to fit its wanderings to some specific template or predefined arc. More than anything the mind just feels its way through memories, ideas, and emotions, picking them up and setting them down based on the most tenuous of connections. The sensations can pulsate between fascination and horror instantly and effortlessly, and the combinations of old things into entirely new expressions is constantly amazing.

While the mind’s tapestry of colors and ideas and beliefs and doubts is without question bizarre and strange, it also seems important. I consider it no coincidence that artistic and creative expression often finds itself trying to imitate this natural mental process, because though it is a strange dance, it is not a meaningless one. Very often as we come out of our dreams and meditations we find that the chain of thoughts has had some special significance to us, that there was a reason to their being. Maybe their purpose was to communicate a meaningful message, to answer a question, or even just to simulate an emotional environment that we needed. Our minds are designed to work this way for a reason, and we can derive real value from allowing them to do so. When the mind recycles the same  familiar corridors too frequently, it will feel restrained, which may lead to unhealthy outlets. A most common one is trying to artificially fabricate creative-flow with mind-altering drugs and chemical stimuli. These mere imitations of the natural creative process leave the mind all the more mundane after their effects wear off, leading to a habitual cycle.

So if nothing else, please take from this that all of us need some time to daydream in our lives. It’s healthy, it’s natural, it’s fun. And so long as you’re doing it, why not write down the journey? I can practically guarantee that writing a story from this more free-flowing bent is not going to give you a bestseller, this sort of stuff just doesn’t fly off the shelves. However there is a deeper value from the exercise, one of being creative on a more fundamental level than you may have ever experienced before. If you let go of rules like a proper beginning, middle, and end, if you stopped worrying about following character arcs and tropes, if you let go of preconceptions of pacing and entertainment…what would you make? It’s okay once-in-a-while to give up outlines and backstories, to do something a little more abstract and bizarre. No one, not even you, knows where it will take you. For once hold your pen, not as the dictator of a world, but as the discoverer of it.

 

Of course, this method will probably make a lot more sense if I just show an example instead of trying to describe it. On Thursday I’ll share with you one of these journeys that I once took a few years ago. It’s something that has stuck in my mind ever since, I hope you will be able to find something personal in it as well. I’ll see you there.

Phillip the Mouse: His Mask and Grandfather’s Kite

Phillip the Mouse and His Mask

One fine Summer day Phillip the Mouse was outside stacking some blocks on the ground. He was so busy trying to build it as high as possible that he didn’t notice when Baxter, the local bully, came over by his side. “Hey, watch out!” Baxter shouted, and then he punched the tower apart with a laugh. All the blocks went flying and one of them hit Phillip right on the nose. Phillip was both surprised and hurt, and before he knew it he was sitting back on the ground crying. Baxter looked a little uncomfortable about that, but he shook his head and said, “Why are you screwing your face up like that? It makes you look all ugly!” Then he stomped away.

Phillip felt very self-conscious and ashamed. He tried to stop crying but it was very hard. He didn’t want to just sit there and look ugly, so he thought of what he could do. Suddenly he had what seemed to be a wonderful idea. Without a word he stood up and rushed into his house. He found some paper and string, markers and glue, and he set to work making a mask. He made a beautiful mouse-face and drew the biggest smile on it that he could. It looked perfect. He tied it on and decided to wear it forever.

Later that day Phillip’s mother came home and gave him a big hug. She smiled at his mask and asked him how his day was.

“It was great!” Phillip tried to say enthusiastically, but there was a little shake in his voice.

“Are you sure?” she asked compassionately. Phillip wasn’t sure why, but there was something about her soft voice that made him feel his sadness growing behind the mask.

“It was okay,” Phillip said, and wet tears were starting to show through the paper of the mask.

“Phillip, can you please take your mask off?” she asked.

Phillip shook his head and stepped back. “It’s a good mask,” he said. “It’s always happy and handsome, it never scrunches up or cries.”

“Phillip,” she said gently. “I like your real face more, I’d always rather see that.”

“Even if it’s ugly and crying?”

“Always,” she repeated. “And it’s never ugly.”

Phillip slowly took the mask away and his Mommy saw how sad he really was. She gave him a hug and just held him for a while. Then he told her about what had happened with the blocks and Baxter. That made him cry even more and she held him for all of that, too.

“I’m so sorry that happened to you today, Phillip,” she told him. “Thank you for telling me, that was a very brave thing to do. Phillip…I want you to always remember that you never need to be ashamed of your tears. Your face is the most beautiful thing I know and always will be.”

And with that, Phillip smiled. A real one this time.

Phillip the Mouse and His Grandfather’s Kite

One gray and windy day Phillip was feeling very confused. His parents had told him that his grandfather was very sick, and that he might not get better. Phillip didn’t understand this. Every time Phillip got ill his parents just gave him rest and maybe some medicine and then he felt better soon enough. Why was it different with grandfather? Phillip’s parents said it had to do with being very old, and that grandfather might need to leave them, which was also confusing to Phillip. Phillip didn’t want his grandfather to leave them.

All of this had made Phillip think about a fine kite that he had made with his grandfather just last summer. They had decided to make it on a blustery day like today, but by the time the glue set the wind had died down and they hadn’t been able to fly it. Phillip’s grandfather had said he would come back another time to fly it with Phillip, but that day had never come. And so, Phillip now decided he had to fly it by himself. For some reason that seemed like a good thing to do with this concerning news from his parents.

Phillip went outside with his kite and soon he had it soaring through the air. It really was a very good kite. It caught the wind easily and held its position very straight and strong. Phillip never had problems with it swirling down or crashing into the ground. As Phillip continued to fly it the wind started to become even stronger. Soon he could feel the kite pulling hard against the reel in his hands. He gripped it tightly, and decided he better pull the line in before the wind picked up anymore. Phillips started turning the reel, pulling the line down as a sudden gust of wind came, pulling the line up.

SNAP!

The string broke in two and it tumbled lifelessly to the ground at Phillip’s feet. Phillip stared down at it for a moment, then back up to the kite. He expected the kite to fall as well, but it didn’t. It swayed around for a little bit, and then a wave of the wind carried it up higher and higher towards a cloud. Phillip felt very strange. Sad… but not like he needed to cry. As he watched, the kite slowly faded into the cloud until he couldn’t see it anymore. Phillip kept watching the same spot on the cloud for a while, just thinking and feeling.

As Phillip turned to walk home he still felt sad, but also alright. It wasn’t the happiest thing to lose grandfather’s kite, but at least he knew where it was. Any time a cloud would pass its shadow over him he couldn’t help but wonder if grandfather’s kite was there, watching him from afar. Somehow that made everything okay.

***

It’s been a wonderful privilege to share these Phillip the Mouse stories. These last two in particular were ones where I wanted to imbue the stories with something special, something that I’m proud of. Even though they were designed for my toddler son, I didn’t want take advantage of his more accepting nature, I wanted to work on them until I could get them right and make them of as high quality as I’m capable. Like I said in my post on Monday, our children, of all people, are the most deserving and needing of our very best.

Also I feel these stories are not just children’s stories. They are stories for everyone. They explore concepts we all deal with and all need to face one way or another. Perhaps my son won’t fully understand all these ideas now, but I hope the seed will be there so he recognizes them when they do come up in life.

This will conclude the Phillip the Mouse series, and next week we’ll be off to somewhere entirely new. Have a good weekend and I’ll see you then.