Australian Shadows Award finalist Daniel I. Russell has been featured publications such as The Zombie Feed from Apex, Pseudopod and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. Author of Samhane, Come Into Darkness, Critique, The Collector Book 1: Mana Leak, Mother's Boys and the huge collection Tricks, Mischief and Mayhem, Daniel was also the vice-president of the Australian Horror Writers' Association, special guest editor of Midnight Echo and associate and technical editor for Necrotic Tissue.
On the Couch With... Rebecca Besser
Read Daniel in...
Wednesday, November 19, 2014On the Couch With... Rebecca Besser
It's been a while since I've had a visitor at the blog. My lonely rantings in the dark tend to put off outsiders. Anyway, as part of her blog tour, I thought I'd ask a few questions to my old friend Rebecca Besser following the rerelease of her novella Undead Drive Thru, a book I originally purchased in 2011.
We talk zombies (of course), life in general and intimate torture! We have also discussed via Twitter (@BeccaBesser and @danielirussell) the rules of nude Wednesday. And it is Wednesday. We live in the future out here in Australia.
So without further Apu, the return of On the Couch With...
1. With the Undead Drive Thru release imminent, are you in a position to discuss the reasons why this novella has changed publishers?
2. Originally published in 2011, and with the recent resurgence of zombie-themed entertainment currently in vogue, how do you think the book has aged in the last few years? Do you find it more relevant now?
I wouldn’t say it was more relevant; it was originally published just as zombies were starting to become popular in culture. As far as how it would hold up now, I think it still stands on its own as something entirely different than the “norm” of zombie literature.
Undead Drive-Thru is a step out of the normal zombie plague. The book contains only one zombie, and with only one zombie I can show people up close and personal how relationships and one’s outlook on life and emotions can be altered. The emotions involved with putting down a loved one in the zpoc are often visited, but I close in on that single emotion and magnify it with a character that will do anything not to killer her spouse.
3. While reading Undead Drive Thru, it reminded me of true old school Point Horror books, in particular, The Waitress by Sinclair Smith due to the diner setting. With the lack of sex and profanity, what demographic was this originally written for, and has this changed since hitting the shelves?
The book was originally written for a YA readership, up to adult. The youngest readers that I know of that have enjoyed the book have been in the 5/6th grade. (13-14 years old). But the book has been enjoyed by many, many adults (as reviews on Amazon for the original release have clearly shown).
There is no profanity in the title, so it’s a book that a family can share. I’m not sure that the sequel will be AS clean, but I won’t go hog wild or anything.
4. As a busy mother and wife, how do you find the time?
I do most of my work while my son is at school and my husband is at work. But, still, many evenings will find me on the couch with my laptop while we’re watching TV. That way, I’m still with my family, but still getting something done. Summer and weekends are harder, I just have to get pushy about getting some time to do what I need to do.
Basically, I do what I can, when I can.
5. Write what you know, is what they always say. Have you had any experience in the food service industry that gave the story a distinct flavour?
I only worked as a waitress once, but have been employed in the fast food industry a couple of times. I know how the buildings are set up, etc., so I’m sure that helped.
6. Have you ever been tempted to give up writing or at least lost a little faith in the business? What did you do to get through it?
Yes, I have lost faith – multiple times. It’s hard not to. But, I remind myself of the success I’ve had so far and tell myself if I keep going, I’ll only accomplish more. Besides, writing makes me happy. It literally changes my mood. If I don’t write for a long time, I get really grumpy. If I write a blog post, a chapter, or a paragraph, I’m instantly happy and feel balanced again. I couldn’t stop now if I wanted to. I’m a writer – it’s who I am and there’s nothing I can do about it. To me, that means I have no right to ever think about giving up, because I would be killing a small part of myself in the process.
7. You’ve edited several anthologies over the last few years. Have you any plans to add to this list of titles?
I don’t know… Editing anthos takes a lot of time and that’s not something I have a lot of these days. I can’t say that I won’t, but there are no plans for an additional one in the near future.
8. At my workshop, I like to discuss the intimacy of pain. Chopping heads off left, right and centre can lose its impact pretty quickly! I find that us horror writers have particular sensitive parts and fears of fears of specific tortures. What’s the worst thing we could do to Rebecca Besser?
Sharks scare me more than anything. So, don’t put me in a shark tank or anything like that. I guess that would be eaten alive with no hope of getting away, huh? LOL
9. Have you ever, in your personal opinion, crossed a line in your writing? Or at least toed it pretty closely?
Yes. On a couple of occasions I’ve pushed things. I can write comfortable, and I can write graphic in-your-face stuff that will make you cringe. I can also write stuff that’s just…wrong.
10. How can we get hold of you in a zombie-emergency? (Yup, the ol’classic sell your pages last question!)
I’m not hard to find. I’m on Twitter, Facebook, have a website, and a blog!
AND, if you’re a US resident and want to find out how buying an ecopy of Undead Drive-Thru can enter you for a chance to win two signed paperbacks, go here:
And here’s some direct links to Undead Drive-Thru:
Undead Drive-Thru US: http://www.amazon.com/Undead-Drive-Thru-Book-1-ebook/dp/B00PKK8INQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1416315900&sr=8-1&keywords=undead+drive+thru+rebecca+besser
Undead Drive-Thru UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Undead-Drive-Thru-Book-1-ebook/dp/B00PKK8INQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1416315955&sr=8-1&keywords=undead+drive+thru+rebecca+besser
Undead Drive-Thru AU: http://www.amazon.com.au/Undead-Drive-Thru-Book-1-ebook/dp/B00PKK8INQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1416316060&sr=8-1&keywords=undead+drive+thru+rebecca+besser
Tuesday, September 16, 2014The journey continues...
Okay so largely writing for my own records at this point.
My last post was on the 5th September, wherein I state that for the novella, I had 8-13k to go with 14 days remaining. Bags of time, right? Wrong. Good job I checked the submission guidelines as I had the date wrong from the start. I only had 10 days to finish the thing, rewrite, edit, beta read, edit again and prepare to submit.
But only 8k to go? Shouldn't take long. I always over shoot. I think the first draft was 30k and I trimmed back to 29k.
Throw in my partner needing emergency dental surgery and then having a bad reaction to the antibiotics that week and you get a while lotta stress.
The novella sped to completion on Saturday, leaving me with little more than a day to get all the other stuff done. I edited all day Sunday and prepared my submission package on the Monday (ahhh, a synopsis to a book is a cheat code to a game). And off it went! Out through the digital doorway. Now comes the month of nail biting.
I dare say it will be a rejection. I'm a natural born pessimist so any acceptances come as a bonus. I'm looking to keep the blog posts following the novella's journey going, just to see, and record, where it ends up. Will it be published? Or simply end up as another virtual dusty file on my laptop?
Time will tell.
In other news...wait. There is no other news. This last book is all I've been doing of late. After writing the cover letter and sending last night, I finally had some time away and continued with the longest game ever, GTA4. I swear, Dark Souls didn't take this long.
Ah well. Sure there shall be some fun posts on the way, with darts finals, the Veruca Salt tour and my citizenship ceremony on the horizon. Maybe I'll even have time to get back to one of my other books inbetween.
Current condition: Tired yet restless. Been up since 4am after bad dreams.
Word Count: 29k. Final!
Words to go: None!
Days left: Done!Opinion of book quality: I like it, actually. I hope the editor does too!
Friday, September 05, 2014Things happened!
Yes! Things have happened over the last couple of weeks which is why I haven't been regularly posting. That changes now (temporarily as this is going to be about 30 seconds long until tonight when I have more time).
For those chasing my non-Nano-(up yours NANO!)-deadline-self-motivation-need-to-get-it-done novella, here's the update. As deadline is approaching, think I can start including time left.
Current condition: Getting on with it.
Word Count: 17k? Holy shit.
Words to go: 8-13k.
Days left: 14.
Opinion of book quality: Word coming easily. Is that a good thing? Also, concerns over rewriting, editing, polishing, beta reading time that will be remaining.
Tuesday, August 19, 2014The greatest Xbox 360 games/franchises ever...by me
In my ecology class in uni back in 2001, we had to create a plant key for identification purposes. We went out, did the work and wrote up our projects. Most of us lost marks with the title. See, we called it PLANT KEY, not PLANT KEY ON PLANTS AROUND EDGE HILL, which was the university. Had to be specific.
But I learned things at uni, including the accuracy of a title. See, these are the greatest Xbox 360 games/franchises ever...by me. So it can't be wrong.
13 games that sucked away my time and took away my attention from my job, my writing and my family. Great games! In no particular order...
Red Dead Redemption
Yes there was the ending, but you can't judge 24+ hours of intense play and many climaxes by the last few seconds. Just ask any lady I've made love to.
Bioshock is wet and dark and grim and awesome. Bioshock 2 is...alright. Bioshock Infinite is generation defining. When the 360 appeared ready for the trade in, in blasted Infinite. Didn't like the story? Then get back to the in-depth character development of COD: BO. These guys should be applauded for what they tried to do. Buy this game.
I'm not one for driving games since the original Mario Kart on the SNES, but FH brought the rock steady driving mechanics of the franchise with pumping music, an open world and sexy cars. I love this game.
Early game for the 360, but by far the creepiest I've played on the console. The ONLY game that made me react like those youtube clips of people in the dark losing their shit. Buy decent gaming headphones too.
So you can hear the whispers..
Fraught with bad story, unfair missions (why every fucker gets in my way when I'm trying to chase someone...and run! No don't run up the wall and fall down...no don't run up the wall and fall down...oh for fuck's-) and an almost greedy (did I say that?) attitude to the franchise...I still love this series. Even 3. Not so much Black Flag, although it was very pretty on the One. Assassin's Creed 2 though. Now that's a great game.
My partner and I played this game TO DEATH. I 100%'ed the first one, even the collecting missions from the final DLC. Just...just go and play it. Having the best intro music in the gaming world justifies the crazy low prices you pay now for the entire GOTY edition. I hope you like guns.
In this day and age, I find it hard to have time to replay a game. I played the original bad boy through three times. As a horror novelist, I of course want gripping, atmospheric, limb-separating sci fi horror in my console. Those bastards bursting out of the snow in 3? Exploding babies in 2? Sold yet?
What games should I have left off? What games should I have included? Do you want a dick length comparison with our Gamerscores? Leave a comment, gamers!
Write what you know! That's what they say, and that's what I usually do.
Characters in my novels have often had old jobs I've had to endure myself, be it the newbie writer Donald Patterson in Samhane, physics teacher rank Harper in The Collector Book 1: Mana Leak and legal-type Guy from the extremely long at still not even halfway through at 60k words novel, Tainted Nature.
It takes the sting out of research. The level of detailed is there and yet I'm free to just write, write, write and let it flow. Even in my new interlinked fantasy worlds, set a little bit towards medieval times, research is required, but the beauty of it is the originality. It's my world, I can create most details from scratch, such as currency, religion, history, etc. A good personal example of this was in short story Nobody Messes With Venus, published in the Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine Birthday issue. A (maybe) post-apocalyptic bizarre world? That's definitely a clean slate to work on.
However, the current project, the novella in a month one, is my homage to the 80s. Now I was born in 1980, so was there for most of it, however, we're talking a very long time ago, and for the start, I was a baby. Forgive me if I wasn't up to date on the latest hits.
There's things I can remember that I've thrown in, and had lots of fun doing so. Children's parties, with mums fussing over the tape deck. The toy obsession - no iPhones here, just plastic action figures with authentic Kung Fu action. There's VHS. Perms. Dare I say it, people going to clubs in dungarees looking like a rejected member of Bananarama. It's that 80s.
Yet I find my character watching the news. Who read the news on December 21st 1987? Google it! Her son looks out of the window. What was the weather like?
One of my biggest writing disappointments of late was my novelette, God May Pity All Weak Hearts. The story was written after an invite to appear in Joe Mynhardt's book For The Night is Dark.
The story emerged exactly as I wanted it, despite writing in a more classical, diary based style from the turn of the 20th century. I was, and still am, very proud of it.
I just wish it had done a little better for itself, garnering more mention in reviews for the book or even a short story award nod. That's sounds awful and shallow, doesn't it? Hear me out though, it wasn't for myself that I wanted those things but for the story itself.
It had been a hard birth. Never have I researched to such a level. As the protagonist was a real person, I went so far as to find actual letters he'd written just to capture an authentic voice. History was delved, notes taken. Street maps from the Victorian age looked up. It felt like giving your kid the best education money could buy and then having him finish middle of the class.
If you fancy a look yourself, I'll post the link at the end, artwork by the incomparable Greg Chapman.
I noticed I was falling into the same trap with this novella, too much time researching the intimate tiny details and not enough words hitting the page. So I decided to call it off. No more research unless it was crucial to the movement of the plot. The Government cover up of child abuse cases? Important. The price of a pack of cigarettes? Not important.
You know, I've hit my word count targets these last few days too.
How do you handle research? Not enough, too much or make it all up anyway?
Current condition: Optimistic.
Word count: 9K.
Opinion of book quality: Light on horror but ante is about to be well and truly upped.
Amazon US 99c!: http://www.amazon.com/God-May-Pity-Weak-Hearts-ebook/dp/B00J0SDH4E/ref=sr_1_11?ie=UTF8&qid=1408403326&sr=8-11&keywords=daniel+i+Russell
Amazon UK 77p!: http://www.amazon.co.uk/God-May-Pity-Weak-Hearts-ebook/dp/B00J0SDH4E/ref=sr_1_19?ie=UTF8&qid=1408403441&sr=8-19&keywords=daniel+i+Russell
From Australian Shadow Award finalist Daniel I. Russell comes a tale of pure love and darkest night.
July 15th, 1905.
A reserved doctor travels by carriage to his newest abode, 39 Hilldrop Crescent, just off Camden Road. A dark house, a quiet house. Too much room for the doctor and his music hall entertainer wife, Cora.
What follows is one of history's most notorious murder cases.
Monday, August 18, 2014Word to your Mother on how to sell a book.
Let's have a lookee at MB on this fine, wet morning:
On Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mothers-Boys-Daniel-I-Russell-ebook/dp/B00IFSE0O6/ref=sr_1_1_bnp_1_kin?ie=UTF8&qid=1408316495&sr=8-1&keywords=daniel+i+Russell
Ah, look at that cover. Tentacle coming out of the pram, blood drifting through the sewer water. Fantastic.
In the middle of the 'writing a novella in a month' project, I also have to sell books. This my latest, from the great guys over at Blood Bound Books. The paperback is a sexy little tease to hold in your hands. If you want one, for FREE, signed, and inclusive of postage (which from Australia means the difference to making my mortgage payment this month), read on.
What makes a book sell? I think it's incredibly obvious yet hard to achieve (unless you have mountains of cash or a likeable personality, of which I have neither). It's allegedly the cover, but I've seen covers that look like clip art projects from when I was in high school, and that was in 1996, that sells. Secondly, the story and quality of writing. Hmm. I'm sure we all have horror stories in relation to that little gem, none of them written by King either.
What makes a book sell is word of mouth and getting it in people's faces. I like getting in people's faces.
Help me get in people's faces!
Due to the current project, blog hits have been on the up this week. All I humbly request is for the Mother's Boys links to be shared all over FB, the Twittersphere (whatever that is) and where ever else. Tag me in there! There's a free hardcopy of the book available to one lucky person and for anyone who wants it, a free spot on this here blog promoting...whatever it is you want. Your book, your band, that second hand Escort your trying to sell (only one previous owner), ANYTHING! It would be fun to try my hand at selling other...items.
Bonus credit to anyone who convinces their mother to buy a copy of Mother's Boys!
Sunday, August 17, 2014Sunday (bloody Sunday)
After yesterday's misadventures, I had aimed to hit the manuscript hard and fast today. I left it at a convenient place to hit the ground running.
First obstacle was the all you can eat breakfast buffet at The Shamrock. Now I'd promised the kids this, so we went and really enjoyed it. I drank my body weight in coffee and my daughter ate so many plates of beans that we threatened to make her stand in the garden for the rest of the day until nature had run its course.
Home to write...right?
My partner needed to go shopping and had planned to take all the kids with her, so there you go, guaranteed writing time. Problem was that the kids said they didn't want to go. I mean, the baby can't talk, but if he could, I'm sure he too would have pleaded his case. Until then, the bub had to go shopping.
That's how we learn how to talk. We learn to say we don't want to go shopping.
My two eldest were out and about with the Greenbushes kids like a bunch from an Australian Lord of the Flies. Going from house to house, with me, left-at-home-dad trying to keep track of their movements, the kids are now a step closer to being chipped. Sure there must be an app out there to monitor their comings and goings.
Next kid down wanted to play more Skylanders...as promised.
Writer tip: To ensure your manuscript is completed, never make promises to your kids. You might think they won't remember, but they will. Every. Fucking. Time.
But hell, I always want to spend more one on one time with him. Parents with four kids and beyond will appreciate how rare one on one days can become. So we played more Skylanders (and this 33 year old's prowess with Skystones gained a four year old's respect) and then, after chocolate sandwiches, decided to watch Thor.
20 minutes in:
By Odin's beard, he didn't last long. My grumpy face is due to right arm being trapped and numb.
So what's the point of my overly explanatory post? I didn't get any writing done? As a writer plagued by procrastination I used my family as an excuse not to do it?
The point is that I sat my arse down and squeezed out another 1000 words just before bed, and I despise writing in the evening (one of my many Aspie traits. Damn this routine!). If I can do it, so should you.
ARSE! DOWN! WORDS! (Don't rearrange that. ... I said don't!)
Current condition: Very hot next to this fire and for some reason my knee hurts.
Word count: 6.1K.
Opinion of book quality: Too much dialogue in last part. Needs more arty padding.
Saturday, August 16, 2014Okay...so I lied.
In the earlier blog post, I claimed that the new manuscript was at 5k words. It wasn't. I just assumed that it WOULD be at 5k words when I was done for that session...which was called off.
For those involved...yes.
My lawn looks fantastic, I have three meals cooked for the week ahead, I copped an aaaaaargh injury chopping wood (for details you need me on FB), I read some Feast for Crows (or as I call, 2nd grade characters drinking wine and talking), and also played some Skylanders Giants with the second youngest, favourite character being Wrecking Ball.
Anyhoo, finally got to writing. Here's me writing:
Nom nom nom. Lovely fucking beer.
Just before friends came in and a blues band started to play.
So to clear the conscience, the manuscript is 5100 words long, but at least, in a fit of mutual sympathy for other artists, I managed to jump on stage and play some drums!
Current condition: fed and drank...somewhat guilty and wishing for the UK beer prices.
Word count: 5.1K. (honestly!)
Opinion of book quality: Could almost certainly be shit.
The deadline (which sounds like a zombie novel set on a train. Ian Woodhead can have that gold title, gratis) is something I don't usually have to deal with but at the moment, there is a project I want to be a part of. This requires a novella to be written in a month.
It is a common complaint amongst both established and aspiring writers that there is simply not enough time in the day to get the desired word counts down. Sure we have things like NaNo for motivation (which I have never liked. If you want to be a writer, you can't go all out for one month in the year and potter around for the other eleven. I also hate the 'it doesn't matter if it's shit just get it down' attitude) but usually a writer's role is solitary, and we have to find the drive within ourselves to find the time.
Those who know me well enough in real life and social media are probably aware of my situation. I have a full time job at an Australian bank, a wonderful partner and four hungry mouths to feed (one of them an 8 month old no less!). Time and money are commodities that are constantly in short supply. I don't have the luxury to spend the day tinkering with this novella, nor be able to afford the time away from the soul destroying day job.
So time needs to be found! Time to prioritise. But then...
No one is depending on this novella. If I don't write it and just continue chipping away at my ongoing projects, the only person that misses out at this stage is me...and I guess the characters who want their story written. Publication is not a guarantee!
My family need me. My work...okay, I don't think they exactly need me but still expect me to show up. So what am I to do? Give it up due to lack of time? Or, you know, FIND THE TIME?
So after a million years of not using this blog (no one reads it anyway) I'm going to keep a sporadic journal of how this novella is going.
My method at this point is...4.30am starts. That's right folks. That allows me to do my daily admin (emails, lack of Amazon reviews anger, clips of people falling over on YouTube and twenty minutes choosing music for the morning) and get a couple of hours down.
I've done this since Tuesday (Thursday off as I had a late night previous) and the manuscript is 5k over the start line. Not a fantastic rate, I grant you, but I've had to do a buttload of research as I go, which always slows me down.
How am I feeling at this point? Not bad actually. There have been moments of feeling dead tired (Woodhead, seriously, I'm a title gold mine). The weekends you would think are a great time to get words down, but I want to mow my lawns and watch Thor with the fam. Is this unprofessional? Hell no. It's being human. Being Dad.
Okay, so there's the start of my shitty journal.
Current condition: hungry and full of caffeine.
Word count: 5K.
Opinion of book quality: Undecided. Could be shit.
Of course, any motivational comment will greatly aid the output! Really, don't hold back...
Tuesday, August 27, 2013Part 6: THE DEAD MAN WAS QUITE THE CHARACTER
Let’s imagine a car accident. Someone was crossing the street and a speeding car has struck and killed a person. Think about it. Picture it. How upset are you?
Okay, now I’m going to add a few details to the scene. Apparently, the car hit and completely messed them up. The body bounced off the hood and the spine had snapped, so the hips were all twisted around. Poor thing didn’t die straight away either and just lay in the road screaming, blood everywhere, until the ambulance arrived some twenty minutes later. A horrible way to die. Horrible.
Side note, notice how often this happens in real life. I know I do it, but being a story teller I like to think that I have an excuse! If you’re given a macabre piece of gossip and don’t respond in a suitably disgusted or horrified way, how often will the person add additional detail, upping the ante? If they can’t shock you with the news and get the emotional result they want, they’ll exaggerate, or place emphasis on the nastier details. Horror writing psychology 101!
Okay, so back to the exercise.
You should hopefully be slightly more reactive to the news I’m telling you, as now it’s more than just a generic news headline of one killed in car accident. You have a few more gory details. You’ve been trusted with more intimate knowledge and are therefore a tad closer to the event.
Next part of this sad tale is that it you now get a phone call. It was your child that was hit by the car. Or your parent. Or brother or sister or best buddy.
Should this really happen (and I genuinely hope nothing like this will happen to any of you. I might create monsters but I’m certainly not one of them), the emotional reaction will be on such a level to eclipse your life for a varying time. Now I don’t believe a story, unless factual and based on someone the reader knows, can evoke a reaction at such an overwhelming level, but if you aim to write good horror, you have to try and tap into the same pool, if you will. This might call into question a writer’s motivation: do you want shock a reader or make them suffer? I’ll leave that discussion for another time.
Right then. Back to square one, actually, negative ten. I’m going prequel on you.
Ten years ago, you had just moved into a new place with your partner. You were expecting your first child together and things were going great. Things were going perfect. One day, you came home from work early and heard giggling from upstairs. You discover your partner in bed with a mountain of muscle with a cock bigger than a zucchini (and I don’t mean one of those small zucchinis, a mean the ones that look like huge cock zucchinis). Turns out the baby is his to boot. Rather than be allowed to mourn your loss and gather your thoughts, this dick pummels the crap out of you while your loved one watches with amusement.
Okay, bit of an exaggeration there on several fronts, but you get the idea.
Now, the aforementioned car accident victim, the one spread all over the road, is this guy (or girl equivalent. I tried to make this all sex and sexuality compatible but it became a glorified mess that read more like an angry orgy). How do you feel now?
I find this quite interesting. If this was true, the range of reactions to this news I feel would be pretty wide, from the this guy didn’t suffer anywhere near enough to the I hated him, but no one deserved this tribes.
Either way, to know the person, and either love them, hate them or merely have an interest in their fate in fiction is down to well written characters.
I’m sure that you can buy an extensive list of books that discuss character development, etc, as this is a fundamental part of any story. I’m going to try and keep it narrowed in on horror, the relationships between the character, reader and events in a horror story.
I think one thing we can all agree on is that in a horror story, bad things happen. We can be impartial to these bad things, for example, I can’t see anyone shocked and appalled by the death of a standard victim in a Friday the 13th movie, but if done right and if we’ve spent enough screen time with them, we might be invested in the protagonist and will them to survive.
If you have a strong, likeable and relatable main character, through which the reader is experiencing your world and the horrors you have placed there, the dread will seep through the story. The readers must feel danger and threat through the character.
On the contrary, if we write a character to be obnoxious, evil, cruel and a multitude of other negative traits, we’re invested in another way. We want the bad things to happen to this character! What satisfaction one can obtain seeing a villain suffer at the hands of karma. Again, for the reader to hate a character, the character needs to be fleshed out and three dimensional. Some fantastic villains of late that spring to my mind are the Mayor Big Jim from Stephen King’s Under the Dome, and Dick from Supernatural season seven. At times, I felt myself glued to the story just to see these guys hopefully get theirs in the end!
There are no hard and fast rules with the dynamics between character and story. The hero doesn’t have to survive. The villain doesn’t have to fail and get a comeuppance. But for a reader to become emotionally involved in the horror, the development of the characters is key.
Monday, August 26, 2013Part 5: HORROR, OR A CONTEMPORARY PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER WITH A DARK FANTASY-SCIENCE FICTION TONE WHICH IS ALSO A ROMANCE
So welcome to Dan’s book shop. This is your first day as book dogsbody.
Here is the new Edward Lee novel! In it, a young man falls madly in love with his neighbour. While she ignores his advances, the young man realises that it’s fate for them to be together, so kidnaps the girl and keeps her locked in his basement where torture and systematic rape abounds. In the finale, the neighbour gets loose and during the struggle, hacks off her tormentor’s head with a machete.
Okay, young whippersnapper! Where are we going to put this book?
Horror would be the obvious choice. Its aim is to make the reader uncomfortable by placing a character in a prolonged dangerous situation. While other considered horror elements are there, such as the rape and the gore, it’s the core drive of the book, once again to cause a feeling of shock or revolt, that for me would make it a fine addition to any horror shelf.
Where did you put it?
Romance? What the hell?
Okay, I know the main character is in love and he does some pretty romantic things before going bat shit crazy…but I wouldn’t call this a romance book. The aims of a romance book and a horror book are extremely different by their nature. This not to say that a horror novel cannot have touching, romantic scenes, nor a romance novel have its fair share of darker moments.
I am not for the straight forward labelling of all fiction, nor against the blending off different generic themes. Some of my all time favourite books, the Dark Tower series for example, are all over the show in terms of genre.
Looking at movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Child’s Play, the originals turned heads and unsettled movie goers. At the time, these were terrifying films that caught the public’s imagination. As the sequels rolled out, the emphasis of each film changed, moving away from terror and shock to entertainment and one liners. I love all the movies, but for different reasons. In editions like Seed of Chucky, it’s quite clear that this is a comedy movie with horror elements, as opposed to the vice versa of say, Child’s Play 2. No matter how many characters are set on fire or dissolved by acid, the dread isn’t there anymore and we have a different kind of atmosphere all together. Yet, this movie is still classed as horror.
The point I’m trying to make is this. Certain aspects could be considered as horror elements. For example, we could have a graveyard, a vampire and a stormy night. Straight away, we’re picturing the scene and thinking horror. However, any kind of story could be derived from this simple set up. Is the vampire waiting for its lost love? Perhaps the vampire is trying to find the vampire dentist as one of his fangs has a cavity. Without considering what you intend to put your reader through, you might not hit that horrific level, no matter how many traditional elements you throw into a story.
The word hybrid is thrown around when discussing these mash ups of genre, and when sci fi-horror comes along, I can think of one movie in particular that nearly, oh so nearly, balances these genres perfectly: Ridley Scott’s ALIEN from 1979.
I say nearly balances, as I feel this movie is about 60% horror and 40% science fiction.
The crew of an industrial ship are awoken from stasis by a distress beacon from a small planet, and being required to investigate, accidently bring a hostile alien life form on board that threatens the lives of the entire crew.
While we have the more traditional horror elements far gone from this movie, this is without doubt one of the most successful horror movies ever made. The dread is generated in spades using pregnant, over-weighted build ups, creepy surroundings and keeping the stalker in the shadows for most of the screen time (although one thing I adore in horror movies is when a rewatch reveals that the killer is actually on screen a lot more then you’d think but you never noticed the first time!).
The science fiction elements are certainly there: the spaceship, the planet, the robot, etc.
Yet when you sit back and compare the two genres in this movie, ALIEN is, at its core, a horror story within a science fiction setting.
The movie, while certainly to a lesser effect, could be played out with the crew of a usual ship finding a small island. Specific plot points would need to be written around (I don’t think ships have self destruct settings), but the story could fit this setting with a little wiggling. Likewise, the basic story could be set within an office block, a haunted mansion, a sewer network and still play out as it currently stands. This is by removing the science fiction elements from the story. The movie would be weaker in any other form, certainly, but the story would still work to some degree.
Now take out the horror and keep the science fiction. With no threat, danger, suspense or that word again, dread, this would be a whole new movie altogether.
I see genres like college/university courses. You can do a straight horror degree, or you can major in horror with a science fiction minor, and vice versa.Next time: We're going to be killing off your friends, family and yes, even your enemies! Stay tuned.
Sunday, August 25, 2013Part 4: Have you heard the one about the dead hooker?
Something that I’ve touched on but not addressed directly is the difference between fear and disgust. Is there a difference? And is one better than the other?
My readers will know that I’m certainly not one to shy away from blood and especially other bodily fluids! I’ll be discussing gore more directly in a later section.
Both achieve a reaction, if done well, and that reaction is very, very similar as our psychology treats them the same. You’re walking alone at night and hear footsteps behind you. Your brain, that beautiful piece of safety equipment, immediately screams DANGER, WILL ROBINSON! and you enter the ol’ fight or flight status. Your heart steps up, you breathe more, you sweat. Adrenaline surges through your veins. Your body is designed to get the hell away from danger, because danger is bad for you. Clearly. Danger has a bad track record for actually doing you well.
Now let’s look at disgust.
You’re walking down the same street but now it’s the afternoon of a fine day at the start of summer. Birds are singing and children are playing. It’s like a delightful scene in a Disney movie and nothing scary or shocking is going on at all.
But then you step into some dog crap. What’s your reaction?
You might cry out, jerk away from it, wipe it on a patch of clean grass as soon as possible. Should you get a good smell, you might even have a bit of a retch. Hehe. I can imagine some of you reading this with a wrinkled nose, being disgusted just by the thought of it.
On a base level, your mind is thinking aargh! Bacteria! Disease! Get it away! Like with a more immediate threat, the aim of your body is to get away from it as quickly as possible, so the reactions are very similar.
I stand by the belief that to write horror is to try your best to evoke this reaction by using any tools at your disposal. If you can shock, that’s fantastic. If you can disgust, that’s great too. Doing both at the same time has always had my vote!
Lionel Cosgrove: That’s my mum you’re pissing on.
Thursday, August 22, 2013PART 3: WAIT FOR IT...
Method one: The JAWS method.
Best film ever made! Ahem. Odds are that you’ve seen JAWS, which is a fantastic example of suspense and anticipation, as well as being a damn fine horror movie that was rated PG, so had very wide market appeal (I think it’s been raised now as I wasn’t allowed to show it at the high school).
JAWS nails the suspense and this is largely done two ways. The first is the score by John Williams. I’m not going to bang on about how great the score is itself, which has reached legendary status, but I’ll briefly mention the actual use. You see, the theme heralds the arrival of the shark. It’s a textbook use of music in a psychological manner. You hear the theme and you start to look for the shark. Your eyes are to the water. You know it’s in there and it’s close. Already that dread is there just from the score. Spielberg was especially sneaky with this method. Remember the two big scare scenes? The head in the boat and the emergence of the shark following “Slow ahead. I can go slow ahead. Come on down here and chum some of this shit.” They work so well as the audience has had no foreshadowing. BANG! SCARE! But where was the music? Your mind has come to depend on that score as an early warning system. You don’t hear it and you don’t think the shark is around. The shock comes completely out of left field and generates a bigger reaction. You sneaky little fellow, Mr. Spielberg!
Another great use of anticipation is to hide the monster. When do we actually see the shark? About halfway in? The audience has to imagine this great menacing fish in the dark water, and especially in the first scene, the carnage it is capable of.
Now while this firmly sits within the less is more camp, keeping the more brutal elements off the page or screen and allowing the viewer’s mind to picture the worst they can…the complete opposite I feel can work just as well, but more on that very shortly.
Yes, the reader’s imagination can do the work for you, and if you find the right balance of giving them enough information to put the pieces together, the image can be more harrowing than something you yourself could have penned.
Here’s an example.
In 2012 I was asked to be the guest editor for the AHWA magazine Midnight Echo. We were looking at a theme, and as I knew I would be spending hours reading hundreds of submissions, I elected to theme the issue on taboos, hoping that this would inspire writers to push the envelope. Authors did not disappoint!
One of the stories I accepted for publication was called Saturday Night at the Milk Bar, by Gary Kemble. In it, a journalist follows a tip off and descends deeper and deeper into a dark, sadistic world, culminating at the scene in the Milk Bar. Here, pregnant/recently pregnant women are saturated with varying drugs, and the patrons suckle their milk to gain the secondary effects…but the real horror lay in the back room…where the babies were kept…
I can vaguely recall the conclusion in the first submission for this (sorry, Gary!) involving a barrel and men feeding on babies like vampires. All very harrowing, yes, but the story did such a great job of drumming up the dread, that the finale didn’t do the build up justice.
I chewed on this for a while. Could I suggest something more horrific to end the piece on a sickening high? If so, would it be brutal enough? Would it not be taking something away from the writer to stick my own ending on there?
I knew I had a corker of a story and didn’t want to ruin it.
What we did was this: The protagonist enters the back room…and cut to him the next morning, almost insane with what he witnessed. What did he see?
Ah, that would be telling!
We handballed the story to the reader and therefore it was up to them to create the horror that lay in the back room. The reveal wasn’t a let down or potentially weaker than we’d had the reader expect up to that point, as it was only limited by the reader’s imagination.
I recall King stating that the art of horror is to say to the reader, hey, there’s something horrible behind this door, and have them fear what that thing might be until the right time you choose to reveal it. Alas, if you reveal a six foot high scary bug creature, the reader might ask why this was not an eight foot high scary bug creature with more teeth and a chainsaw, as that’s clearly more menacing. It’s a gamble by the writer when withholding such information. Is your scare enough? What if you don’t reveal it all, as in the Milk Bar example above? I felt we did a good job with that story, but there’s the risk of the reader feeling cheated by withholding plot from them. Imagine an Agatha Christie novel where the murderer is never revealed.
Here’s my crate again. There was a yeti inside in CREEPSHOW, but what’s inside mine? There’s definitely something horrible in here that I shall be revealing in a few parts’ time. But what’s in it? What’s in the box?
Then there’s the other end of the spectrum…
Method 2: The INBRED method.
I love Alex Chandon films, from the sadistically violent Sick Room in Cradle of Fear to the psychedelic steampunk bizarro of Pervirella. I looked forward to his 2012 movie Inbred for quite some time, and it didn’t disappoint. For me, this absolutely creamed the second method of generating dread, so much so I’m awarding it the name of the Inbred method.
The movie is delightfully simple in its premise. A small group of young offenders and their two minders travel to a small rural village in the depths of Yorkshire (especially creepy yet familiar for a Lancashire man such as myself!) for a renovation/rehabilitation project. It becomes very apparent early on that things aren’t quite right with the locals, who are all bloodthirsty maniacs from the shallow end of the genetic paddling pool. Some of the group are slaughtered, as one would expect in a horror movie, but it’s the execution (no pun intended) were this movie shines. I’m not taking about the actual method of dispatch, but the delivery. Kills are paraded, victims humiliated and toyed with in front of a braying, enthusiastic audience.
This movie uses the polar opposite of the JAWS method to generate the fear. Absolutely nothing is kept off screen. Every axe chop and shotgun blast is right there in your face, blood splattering, bones shattering.
Some may argue that this is (…ah GOD! I HATE THE TERM!) torture porn, and is incapable of causing any kind of dread beside the dry heaves of the squeamish. I disagree.
While method one is secretive and method two is gratuitous, I would suggest that both share the same core aim: to have the imagination of the audience generate the dread. The difference is in the tense.
Method one deals with keeping the violence and brutally away from the viewer yet referring to it in the past or present tense. In the story discussed above, Saturday Night at the Milk Bar, we wanted readers to think, my God, what happened? What did the journalist see? We forced the reader to mentally fill the gap to complete the picture. I also recall a possibly banned advertisement for one of the recent Texas Chainsaw movies. The trailer showed nothing except a blank screen, but audiences had the pleasure of listening to a girl being chased, complete with gasps, begs, the endless revving of the saw and ultimately, death throes. Here the audience is thinking, what is happening to this poor girl? While the movies have been quite limited in their depiction of chainsaw death considering the realities of it, the viewers’ mind no doubt conjured a much more graphic picture, which may have led to the level of discomfort it caused and it’s resultant banning.
With movies such as Inbred, and certainly some of my own earlier works such as Samhane, the stall is set out early, with what could be called a violent prologue, or a ruthless starter before the main meal. Here, we shove it all in the audience’s face early on and say: this is it, guys and gals, and if you think this is bad, just stay tuned…
In Inbred, we are treated to a high class (yet definitely insane) couple having afternoon tea while in the background, a rough and muscled man cuts wood with an axe. After the woodcutter asks for some lemonade (and other things!) and is refused, he immediately dispatches the couple with the axe. Blood splatters the walls. Limbs go flying.
After watching the rest of the movie, it becomes apparent that the scene has nothing to do with the main plot. So why is it here?
It’s the barker’s cry before you enter the funhouse, the warning, the gleeful hint of the monstrous acts to follow.
You see, this generates dread in the future tense. As I watched the movie and kills became more outlandish and extreme as the minutes ticked by, my stomach was in knots, not because of the scene I had just watched, but in regards to what scene might be coming. How far is this director going to push the boundaries of taste? Are my limits going to be challenged here? This was the feeling of horror, wondering what was going to come.
So while I’ve kept my monster behind the door until the right time to reveal it and hopefully scare the pants off you, here I’m going to straight out show you what’s lurking there and guarantee you that behind door number two there will be something even worse…
Look! A random lion!
Dr. Lawrence Gordon: What's the last thing you remember?
Adam: Nothing! I went to bed in my shithole apartment, and I woke up in an actual shithole.
Tomorrow: A quick one on generating disgust.