In the last section of Covalent I introduced a new threat, a river that congealed part of itself into thin strands, and then stretched those strands out to grasp and throttle all other forms of life. This created a sinister image of finger-like tendrils reaching through the soil, feeling for our heroes to snuff out their lives.
Of course, a couple chapters ago I had just introduced another enemy, this one was a tall beast, with a head and body like a giant clam shell, and four long, spindly legs extending from the back. This one had been large and imposing, but I feel like the dark river strands are more unnerving.
For worse than brute strength is the sinister unknown.
The Fear of the Unknown)
It is often said that the thing we fear the most is the unknown. I believe there is a lot of truth to that, but why? Why would the unknown evil be worse than the known one?
I would suggest it is because when something is unknown we tend to assume the worst. The vague, undefined form becomes a placeholder for all the things that we are most afraid of. When I hear something go bump in the middle of the night, I am not afraid because it is unknown, I am afraid because being unknown, I then jump to the assumption that it is a madman who has broken into our home and is coming for my children, the thing that I most fear.
Thus I could try to guess what your worst fear is, and then write exactly that into a story. But if I were wrong, then you would not be as frightened as you could be, and if I were right, then it would be the scariest story for you only until your worst fears changed. For as we grow, the things we love change, and the fear of losing them shifts as well.
And this is why I escalated from a clear and imposing threat to a more vague and mysterious one. What do those icy hands feel like when they grasp a human victim? Well, I’m not ever going to describe that. I’m going to leave that up to the imagination of each individual reader, to conjure up the most terrifying sensation that they are capable of.
Legends of Fear)
One of my favorite spooky stories, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, is very aware of this dread of the unknown. Throughout its tale there is a consuming obsession with the strange and the shrouded. Myths abound of ghosts and phantoms, who sometimes are there and sometimes aren’t, whose rules of operation are inconsistent and disputed. Most famous of all are the legends of the Headless Horseman, a decapitated soldier who still wages battle on moonlit nights.
Enthralled by all these stories is Ichabod Crane, the local schoolteacher and protagonist of the tale. He is also enthralled by the daughter of a wealthy farmer named Katrina Van Tassel, and spends much of his time trying to woo her. This brings him into competition with the Brom Bones, the rough-and-tumble hero of the county, who also has his eyes set on Katrina.
One fateful night, Ichabod Crane finds himself riding through the woods alone. He is full of tales of ghosts and goblins, and feeling extremely unnerved about his situation. He mistakes the wind blowing through the branches for a whistle, the rubbing of boughs for an ethereal moan, and a scar in the tree for some white, hanging phantom. As I mentioned before, he is perceiving these unknown sights and sounds, and they become placeholders for all his worst dreads.
But then, most terrifying of all, a huge and silent rider, enshrouded entirely in black comes up alongside him. He says not a word, his intentions he keeps to himself, and so the reader is left to imagine all manner of malice hiding within that rider’s cloak.
But then, one solitary detail of the rider is made abundantly clear. Ichabod notices that there is no head upon the person’s shoulders, rather he is holding it down at his waist! With that Ichabod bolts and an epic chase ensues! Ichabod making for a bridge that legend states the Headless Horseman cannot cross. By the skin of his teeth he makes the other side, but upon turning back he sees that the phantom has thrown his own head through the air, crashing it into Ichabod’s cranium!
And then…well…we never actually find out what happens. The next day the local townsfolk find Ichabod Crane’s horse wandering around by itself, and the schoolteacher’s belongings strewn about the road, and a pumpkin smashed to pieces off to the side. Ichabod, however, is never seen again.
The story states that Brom Bones seems suspiciously knowing of the events that night, but neither confirms or denies that he was actually involved. And so, at the the end, there are several possibilities for what transpired. Was Ichabod menaced by Brom Bones in disguise, or was it the actual Headless Horseman, or was it just his own overactive imagination? If one of the former two, was he run out of town, or was he actually killed by his foe?
All of the story’s unknown elements leave it up to the reader to assume their own, personal, worst-case scenario. Which idea frightens you most? Being driven from your home, going crazy, being murdered by a member of your own society, or being claimed by an actual phantom of the night? The story is a placeholder for whatever fate you dread most.
One final detail from the story: in its last paragraph in mentions that Ichabod Crane has, fittingly, becomes another part of the local legends, his story now being recounted at all of their social gatherings. There are those that even claim to have heard his old, familiar tunes being sung by a melancholic voice from the remains of his old schoolhouse. In the end has he become a part of the strange unknown.
Continuing Into the Dark)
As I continue with Covalent I will keep these principles firmly in my mind. I might unveil more of how the river’s strange, dark tendrils operate, but rather than provide a better understanding, each revelation will only serve to make the menace more of an enigma, a placeholder for the deepest fears of the reader.
Well, here we are in a new series. Usually I try to make each series distinct from the one before, and thus avoid building off of any prior ideas. This is going to be the exception, though, because last series I made a post that I have a bit more to say on. Specifically it was my post just a week ago about how every author seems to have a distinctive style. In that post I suggested that if each writer were to examine their own style they would probably find that it had naturally emerged as an extension of their own personality.
I still agree with those thoughts, but realized that many authors are actively trying to change their style. Perhaps they want to branch out and try new things, or they want to be more marketable, or maybe they want the prestige of being a versatile author.
Personally I do think it can be very positive to spread one’s wings and expand, though not necessarily for all of those reasons listed above. In fact I think authors can run the risk of killing their passion for writing if they push themselves too hard to change and for the wrong reasons.
I’m concerned that the most common motivation people have for changing up their craft is a fear of what other people think of them. This fear can manifest in couple of ways. Perhaps the author feels that writers who shift effortlessly between many different styles are more impressive than one who only writes in one, or perhaps they think their work will sell better if it is in a different genre. With these fears an author can feel pressured to redefine themselves over and over, changing with every shift of society.
Holding ourselves to such expectations can never be healthy. It’s exhausting and will inevitable lead sooner or later into writing things that we really don’t care about. With this mentality writing truly becomes just a “job” and not a work of passion. And what of the outcome? Perhaps one can learn to write something different, but that does not inherently mean that it is better.
Even a dream can be made into a drudgery, and nothing is more dulling than slaving away over a script you don’t care for. I’m all for writing things out of your comfort zone as an exercise, and even for emulating an entirely different voice in a new novel. But if you’re going to be dedicating a significant portion of your life to doing this work, you had better make sure it will be in a genre that you love.
But what if it’s not about pleasing a crowd? What if it’s sincerely just trying to become the best author one can be? What if the author is afraid that they have stopped growing and they want to take their craft to the next level?
Well, to be clear, experimentation and exploration are obviously essential to becoming a confident author. Every person who wants to author a story needs to be expanding their scope every day. They need to practice and exercise their skills, making sure every tool in already in their belt is kept sharp, and trying to add new tools wherever they can. I think most people would say that developing one’s skillset is the single most important thing one can do to become a professional writer.
I, however, would say it is only the second most important. It’s a very big second, but still second.
First and foremost comes living a full and complete life. Extensive skills, fancy prose, hours of writing prompts… these are ways of putting those tools into your belt. But tools do not craft a masterpiece, the artist that wields them does. More than these you need to find things in life you are deeply moved by, so that you will know by experience how to touch a reader’s heart. You need to experience the full depth of real-life relationships, so that you will know how to write a convincing relationship. You need to go through a soul-crushing disappointment, so you will know how to pen a heartbreaking tragedy.
One of the classic elements I love most in a good martial arts film is that raw talent is only of use after one is grounded and centered. You see this in The Karate Kid, Ip Man, and even Cinderella Man. Other warriors in those stories might have greater raw strength, but the heroes triumph because their foundation is based on living a life that matters.
If you want to be the best author you can be, then you need to find out what real love is, what real loss is, what hopes and dreams and doubts and failures are made up of. You need to hurt, and you need to be healed. You need to understand yourself, and then you need to be mystified by yourself.
No author should want to stay the same for their entire career, but they needn’t worry about that if they are living a deep and meaningful life. Part of living life to the fullest means constantly changing and improving. It means not sitting back in complacent idleness, but rather growing and expanding as a person.
As I mentioned in my earlier post, my own particular style has changed as my patterns of life naturally evolved through education, physical exercise, and spiritual searching. I didn’t have to try to alter my form of storytelling, it just did so naturally as an extension of who I am.
When growth as a writer is based first on personal development and second on developing skill, I think you’ll find your improvement will outstrip any other method. This has certainly been the case for me.
Whenever I want to take my writing to the next level, my first question is “what can I do to improve myself as a person?” And if I successfully become a person that I respect more, then I always find that my writing is more satisfying as well.
A Real-Life Example)
Obviously many life changes come unexpectedly, and it is impossible to tell exactly how they will color our writing style. This means that while we hope to improve in our craft, we may not know in which way we will do so.
When Brunelleschi lost the commission to design the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery in 1401 he also lost any future as a sculptor in Florence. His entire trajectory had been crushed in a moment, and he knew it was time for some deep soul-searching. So he went away to Rome, and there among the marvels of antiquity he found an abiding fascination in the ancient ruins that he found there. He started uncovering principles of architecture that had been forgotten to the ages, secrets of a bygone era, and even found ways to improve on them.
Eventually Brunelleschi did return to Florence, but not as a sculptor. Instead of crafting a pair of mere doors, he was commissioned to erect an architectural masterpiece. His dome on the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral showcased principles of balance and support that were entirely unheard of, and the structure still stands today as a prominent figure of the Florentine skyline.
The important thing, though, is that while his shift in life was quite radical, it was not a brash reaction to public opinion. Perhaps it was losing a commission that began his journey of self-discovery, but he dedicated 39 years of honing his craft between that failure and his later monumental success. This was no brief flight of fancy, this was a man improving himself over a lifetime of effort. As best we know, Brunelleschi died a content man. A man who had lived richly, and then created beautifully.
By all means each of us should test the limits of our comfort zone regularly. These exercises will expand our skillset, and may even lead to discovering new passions, such as architecture to Brunelleschi.
Generally, though, I always like to approach these sorts of exercises without any expectation, I simply allow the experience to be what it will be, take the good that it offers me, and move on with my work. And that’s exactly what I am going to be doing with my next project. On Thursday I will post the first part of a story that is intentionally as far removed from my usual style as possible. Where normally I fall into the pattern of slow and fantastical allegory, here I am going to strive for a realistic setting, some biting cynicism, and a chatty-conversational narrator. Come back then to see how it turns out.
Reylim’s feet made loud echoes as they pattered across the stony plains. Now that Glimmer soared alongside of her, illuminating the way, she was able to move along far more quickly. She had settled into a well-practiced pace, one that she could maintain for a few hours if needed. Glimmer had explained to her that it was necessary for them to reach something called “the Nexus” which held a direct stream to all of the life on the planet. If Glimmer could imbue itself into that Nexus then it would be able to provide a spark to all peoples and creatures, awaking them from their current slumber.
As she ran Reylim kept turning different parts of her conversation with Glimmer in her mind. Suddenly a thought occurred to her that was so fundamental she couldn’t believe she hadn’t conceived of it sooner.
“Glimmer,” she queried, “you say that when your light enters the Nexus this whole world will become illuminated and people will be able to act and choose as they see fit. Similar to how things are on my world, Celsar?”
Essentially yes. The people here will be far behind in development and understanding, but their fundamental existence will be the same.
“Right…” she affirmed, coming now to her main point. “So does that mean that Celsar itself was once like this? And that someone helped you to ignite it as well?”
I assume so. I know of many things generally, but of specifics my understanding is limited to this world. And if things did occur in a similar way on Celsar it was done by another reflection of the Glimmer.
“Oh right…because you are not the core Glimmer?”
I am a reflection of Glimmer. Think of it as an individual spark from a fire, just as there is an individual spark of Glimmer in you as well. All of the sparks are merely extensions of the original flame, and yet they are their own fire as well And as you know many things naturally by intuition, such as the importance of goodness and virtue, yet there are many specifics that are known to the Glimmer but which remain hidden to you.
“And so you are specifically the spark of this world?”
I am meant to be, if we successfully ignite this world.
“Does a hero ever fail to ignite a world?”
The original Glimmer cannot fail, it cannot be destroyed, but we individual sparks can. I am keenly aware of my own fallibility and mortality. Therefore it is possible for a world’s intended intended spark to be killed, and then that world would be consumed into the void, torn apart into nothingness.
There was a pause.
And certainly a hero has failed before. Reylim, I must be honest with you. You are not the first to come here. Indeed, Nocterra has existed since long before your own world, Celsar. I remember watching Celsar burn into life many eons ago. And still no hero has been able to save this world. I think you will be the last, as the nether regions are already disintegrating into the void.
Reylim shivered. Her heart thumped, protesting the next question that dangled on the end of her lips, but she had to ask it. “And what is the void?”
Exactly as it sounds, a void. The more you try to define it, the further you stray from comprehending its pure nothingness. It is not right to call it living, as that would require the existence of some intelligent entity in it. It just absence, and that is all.
“If I fail, I will be consumed by it?” Reylim’s feet had slowed drastically, barely moving above a slow walk now.
I will not lie to you. Yes.
Suddenly Reylim wondered what she had gotten herself into. Of course she had been aware that her great quest would involve danger, but she had always been thrilled at the excitement of such things. It had all sounded so romantic, now the stark reality of it terrified her. She should not be here in such a place. How could the sentinels have sent her? What was one young girl and a dim spark against an eternal–
A cold thrill tore through Reylim’s as her eyes lighted on dark forms approaching ahead of her. They were tall and thin, and barely humanoid in form. Their edges were too sharp to be organic, though, forming sharp geometric edges. All the area around them appeared warped and stretched, as though the very matter and light around them was tearing apart at their presence. At their cores there was pure nothingness. They did not appear as three dimensional entities with a front, sides, and a back, but rather they seemed more like holes that had been punched clear through the eternities of space, reaching out to swallow Reylim.
“What do I do?” she begged, her voice shrill and panicked as she fumbled with the ceremonial dagger at her side.
Your weapons are of no use here. Get away from this place and calm yourself, I will try to slow the advance.
Reylim still wasn’t ready to put her dagger away, and she didn’t want to turn her back on these apparitions. Instead she awkwardly fumbled backwards, until her heel caught a rise in the rock and she fell onto her back. Then her panic fully set in and she scrambled back up to her feet and sprinted away.
As she went she shot glances over her shoulder, and she saw Glimmer rush up to the dark forms and begin encircling them with long streaks of light. Those streaks hung in the air as barriers which seemed to restrain the advance for a moment, before the light was dissolved back away into nothingness.
With her eyes turned backwards she failed to notice that she was running straight for one of the small ditches in the rock. For a brief moment she felt the shock of nothing beneath her feet, and then the thud of impact as she hit the ground beneath. She instinctively converted her momentum into a roll, tearing her robes and gashing her knees in the process.
She stumbled up to her feet, noticing that her breath was coming rapidly, almost hyperventilating. Glimmer had told her to get calm, and now she felt even further panicked as she tried to do just that and found that she could not. As fresh waves of despair began to wash over her she noticed new void forms materializing on either side of her. They began as small pinpricks of emptiness, only noticeable by how the world around them warped inwards as if towards little black holes. Then the voids widened outward, stretching out to her.
She wanted to run away but her legs were trembling so badly that she dropped back to her knees instead. Her mouth moved in the shape of the word “no” but no sound came out.
Please, Reylim, I need your help to diminish them!
A streak of light shone over her head and Glimmer spun around each of the void figures, binding them in light.
“I don’t understand,” she croaked.
Your fear and your despair cripple you. They take away your will to act and draw the void toward you. You need to leave here, but you need to do it calmly.
“I don’t know how.” Already the dark forms were breaking past Glimmer’s restraints.
Just stop focusing on them. Focus on yourself instead. What do you feel?
Reylim tried to stand once more, but her legs continued to waver uncontrollably. “Unstable” she flustered, unsure of what Glimmer’s point was..
What is unstable like? Glimmer continued dashing back and forth between the two dark forms, putting additional light barriers before them, each fell more quickly than the last.
“Like having no power,” she answered, but then realized that that wasn’t quite right. “Or maybe having too much power, but it isn’t going the right way.” As her mind shifted inwards her legs began to quake less, just enough that she could hobble to the end of the ditch. She put her hands over the edge, but when she tried to lift herself over found she still lacked the finesse to do so.
That’s good Glimmer encouraged. What else?
She tried to push the sense of danger from her mind, and instead closed her eyes, centering herself. “And I’m hurt,” she winced. “My leg is throbbing.”
Yes, there’s blood on it, can you feel that?
She paused. “Yes–I missed that somehow.” The warm liquid pooling down her skin, sticking to her robes. It was unpleasant. Reylim felt a rush of clarity and she easily swung herself up to the higher ground. Once above she opened her eyes again and saw the void forms following her out from the ditch.
Her heartbeat quickened and she tried to calm herself again. Her inhale came sharp and rapid, but the exhale was slower and more controlled. The void forms wavered.
Very good, now we need to do this next part carefully. Glimmer came bounding up from the chasm, resuming its perch above Reylim’s shoulder. Take in your surroundings. But keep calm.
Reylim slowly turned about and summed up her situation. The two void forms in front were being joined by the original three, and were fanning out to come at her from different angles. She looked to the left and the right and on each side there were another three forms approaching as well. Behind her, the way she had intended to depart, there came another six. They were all closing in.
Reylim’s heart began escalating again and she noticed the periphery of her vision starting to warp and darken.
Accept them for what they are. Let them exist, but apart from you. You are in danger. Say it, but say it calmly.
“I–” Reylim’s voice wavered and she cleared her throat. “I am in danger,” she forced out in a monotone. As she did it seemed more factual than emotional. Her heart returned to normal. She noticed that the calmer she was the slower and smaller the void forms seemed to become.
Good. Now if you recall, the widest angle of retreat was between the ones on your left and the ones directly behind. Move that way. You may run, but only if you can do so calmly.
Reylim exhaled slowly then turned in that direction. She walked forward, purposefully. Each step brought her closer to both danger and escape, but she tried to focus on the latter of those two. Behind her she could hear Glimmer leaving more streaks of light to guard her back. Then Glimmer moved forward and worked to restrain the ones ahead, slowing them enough that she would clear their gap.
At least, she thought she would clear it. It was going to be close. She quickened her pace to a light run. Her heartbeat quickened, but not from fear. She noticed that the throbbing in her leg had increased by the faster motion and she focused on that sensation, burying her consciousness into self-awareness. She glanced down at the ground in front of her, memorizing its features. Then she inhaled deeply and closed her eyes, shutting out the sight of the nearing forms.
“Three steps,” she muttered to herself, “then a slight rise.” She leapt up onto the shelf. “And down the other side….Just another dozen paces and I’m clear.”
Rather than ignore the sound of Glimmer whizzing about her she noted it, projected from it where the voids must be, and so became aware when she had passed their perimeter.
She opened her eyes, listening to the sounds of Glimmer fading into the background. She did not stop, following Glimmer’s instructions to get away from that place. The further she ran the less light she had, and so she stumbled across the dark landforms. In time she slowed back to a walk, cautiously feeling her way forward and trusting that Glimmer would come and find her whenever it was safe to do so.
As if on cue, the area around her began getting brighter every moment. She spun around and saw Glimmer drifting to her. She was surprised to realize that Glimmer had lost a great amount of its luminescence and Reylim realized that its defenses of her had not been without cost.
“You’ve been hurt,” she said, her voice mixed with equal parts concern and guilt.
So have you. But we are safe.
“I’m sorry,” she looked down in shame.
“I shouldn’t have lost my head like that.”
Why not? You had just been given some very frightful news. Perhaps you needed to calm down, but there is no shame in that you needed to calm down.
Now that the immediate danger was past her, the deeper more abiding one took the forefront of her mind again.
“Glimmer, I don’t think I should have come!” she exclaimed, hot tears spilling down her cheeks. “I am not the hero that this world needs. I didn’t know what it was going to be like here. I’m just one small girl and the void is ageless and eternal. I can’t even fight it!”
And so you would rather curl up and hide from it all?
There was no judgment in Glimmer’s message, the question was sincere. Reylim nodded.
What would you curl up into?
“Somewhere safe. Somewhere quiet.”
Like a void?
Reylim paused, a moment of clarity washing over her. “That’s what you meant by saying I was summoning them? When I get panicky I feel paralyzed…and I just want to let go and hide…into nothingness.”
That is how the void works. Its only power is derived from what we give to it. You can fight it by your battles within.
“But how can I want it and be afraid of it at the same time?”
It sounds strange, I suppose, but you’ll find many people tend to be afraid of the very things they want. But another part of you wants to be a hero as well, and you are afraid of that also, aren’t you? The best part of you is afraid of the void, and the worst part of you is afraid of…
“Sacrifice,” Reylim said softly, staring downwards. “My whole life I’ve been trained to give my all for a noble cause, but it’s a very hard thing now that I’ve come to it.” Her vision was becoming blurry and she pressed her eyes shut to squeeze out the water. “I’m sorry, Glimmer. I really don’t want to let this world down and I think the lives that could be here deserve to have their chance…. But I’m just not the stuff that heroes are made of.”
No one is.
No one is born with heroism already in their blood, no one becomes a hero first and then afterwards performs their great heroic act. Every hero only became one while feeling just as small and miserable as you.
By not worrying about the ‘how.’ All you ever need to worry about is just taking the very next step.
Reylim paused, biting her lip and feeling the streams of tears continue to flow down her cheeks. “Can you please just promise me that I’m not the last chance for this world? Please…tell me that if even if I fail everything can still be alright. Tell me that the mission can extend past me.”
Child, Glimmer lowered itself to shine warmly on her face. You still do not understand. This world is not the mission, our igniting it is only a byproduct of our true mission.
On Monday I promised that I would introduce new characters in this section of Glimmer, specifically the enemy of the story and the people that populate this world. Unfortunately I only got the first of those done this week, and it is possible that this story might end up being split into four parts instead of three. That’s alright, though, I don’t want to rush it faster than it should be.
In any case hopefully you were able to see how the competing themes and arc were expanded in this entry, with a few more threads yet to be introduced. Then, finally, all will taper together for a single climatic finish.
Having introduced the “villain” of the story I’d like some time to examine it in greater detail. This enemy is not a a traditional character, it is more of an eternal force. Sometimes these tides of power show up in stories, in fact they have been present in each of the short stories in this latest series. Come back on Monday when we’ll examine how they have been used, and what makes them useful when crafting a tale.
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?”
“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!
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!