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Daniel I Russell - Writer of Horror Fiction

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Thursday, August 22, 2013


So speaking of anticipation, how can you get that going on in your fiction? I’ll keep it simple and look at two broad ways. Yes, I’m going to use movies again, as it’s more likely that you’ve seen these movies than novels I can pluck off the shelf.

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.

I think this is the first glimpse of the shark proper, and also my favourite scene.

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!

SOLD OUT! But still available in digital formats.

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?

A Yeti? Typical.
So is there a definitive rule to how much to give away to generate the dread? Sadly, no. But it’s fun to experiment.

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.
Again, favourite scene. Altogether now! DIRTY....DIRTY...DIRTY...

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.
"You will share this post...or we'll re-enact a Chandon film. Comprende?"

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.

Posted by Daniel I. Russell :: 8:44 am :: 0 comments

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