For the past few years I’ve spent my October weekends guiding tours of a local haunted house. The folks who run the haunt have one rule for the guides – make sure the folks are entertained. They hope the people leave terrified. They want to see people running from the building – their eyes bulging, their jaws pulled back, and their flesh pale and sweaty indicating a fast heart rate and a burst of adrenaline. There’s even a chalkboard tally kept to keep track of how many patrons wet themselves. But if they leave laughing, that’s almost as good.
The point is they recognize that not everything that scares one person is going to scare the next. The creepy old lady wearing a wedding dress and rocking a baby doll, the crazed masked man wielding the roaring chain saw, the army of undead coming from the gap under the wall, the electrical burst of sparks and the malfunctioning elevator that suddenly feels as if it’s dropping, the laughing clown, the silent child; ask a dozen people which of these images elicits the most dread and you’ll get at least a half a dozen different responses – maybe more. Because when you invite a fickle public into the haunt you’ve spent months preparing, it’s all but certain that some fraction of those guests will leave saying that nothing they saw was particularly frightening to them; and that’s okay, so long as they also say they had a good time.
For me though, as a writer, leading these tours represents the ideal opportunity. To tell the truth, I’m not a particular fan of the fright milieu. I don’t especially care for horror films, I don’t read ghost stories, and I don’t personally believe in the supernatural. My genre of choice is thrillers: mysteries, spy-stuff, and political intrigue.
The thing is, though, because of my time spent with those who love gore and monsters and demons and insanity my writing has improved. Horror as a specific genre is the foundation for the tension aspect of any tale. When you get right down to it, Bram Stoker wrote detective fiction. Mary Shelly wrote a travel log. Edgar Allen Poe wrote love stories. Stephen King’s It – is it a story about a psychotic, undead, killer clown; or is it a story about a group of friends rallying to overcome adversity? To me, It is Stand by Me plus Pennywise.
What I have learned running guided tours of the Goucher Haunted Hotel in Toronto, Ohio has made my mystery fiction all the better. I can sum up the lessons I’ve learned in four simple observations, each of which has improved my ability to build suspense and to shock my readers.
• Lesson one: anticipation. When guiding a tour, one is usually following a prior tour. There’s no way to keep the guest from hearing the slamming doors being experienced by the tour before them when they are only two or three rooms behind; but very often the suspense elicited hearing some other group being startled by a bang was more frightening to my tour than the bang itself once they reached it. Alfred Hitchcock was a master at this and Steven Spielberg learned the lessons well. Think about the movie Jaws; it’s what you expect to happen almost more than what actually does happen that causes you to leave the theater afraid to go in the water.
As a writer, this kind of atmosphere is surprisingly easy to generate. You know what’s coming. Heck, it’s your story; of course you do. So why wait until the moment that it happens in the narrative to reveal it to the reader? Let them know that it’s coming … and then write up to it slowly. Throw in a few false starts. Go off on a tangent about the color of the bedspread. Use punctuation to your favor. See that ellipses mark a few sentences back? It made you read the sentence more slowly than a comma would have, right?
• Lesson two: red herrings. Disorientation is a powerful thing. Often times, a tour in the haunt would be ruined by a guy who thought he could see all of the scares being telegraphed. The best way to deal with him – I learned – is to hint at a scare that never comes. “If you could all stand over here and admire the chandelier that Mrs. Goucher had installed for their jubilee celebration,” I might say. The group’s resident spoiler then tells everyone to watch out – it’s going to fall. That’s when he backs up against the wall and a zombie arm grabs him by the shoulder scaring the bejeezus out of him.
The secret to a successful red herring is the details. The more you, as a writer, focus on the distraction, the more focused your reader will be on that distraction. It’s why the magician spends so much time flourishing the drape while the assistant scrunches into the cubby hole. He doesn’t want you thinking about what the assistant is doing.
• Lesson three: feel it. Last year, at the beginning of our tour, two portraits morphed into a set of demonic eyes as a disembodied demonic voice told the guests that they’d been assigned a guide who they should heed if they hoped to make it out alive. The second week of the haunt, the director realized that we had been missing an opportunity, and he asked the guides to go into a trancelike state when the voice came on – pretend the demon has control over you, that he controls this hotel and everybody in it. After that, as soon as the eyes lit up some of us fell to our knees. Some of us stood and shook. The thing is, it set a mood, and it established our character for the tour.
When writing a scene, put yourself as deeply into that space as you can. Feel the terror so that you can describe the terror. The more you immerse yourself into it, the more immersed your reader will become. For me, the best way to accomplish this is deep background. Write a history that the reader will never see. Know how your protagonist did in school, what her first boyfriend smelled like. Know what the villain thought about his grandma. Name his pets. Know his medical history.
In my mystery series, I hint that the female narrator and the male detective have a shared family history. The reader is never privy, but I know every detail of that history and it informs every interaction. I know why she says X when she does, and it rings true because of that time she said Y. The reader feels this even if she never understands why, and it makes the danger more real.
Yet no matter how adept you become with the first three items, never forget that not everyone is frightened by the same tropes. Your book about giant spiders is not going to frighten an arachnologist. So how do you assure that everyone leaves the story entertained?
• Lesson four: comedy, which – believe it or not – relies on two of the same three techniques: expectation and misdirection. Only rather than empathy, comedy relies on release. A pratfall isn’t amusing to the one who fell. A pie in the face isn’t funny if you feel sorry for the person with cream in her nose. They’re funny when the tension – which is built on anticipation and confusion – releases.
A good story can entertain without comic relief, but it cannot hope to entertain everyone. That’s why everyone from Shakespeare to Wes Craven has banked on it. Think of any popular horror story or thriller. If it didn’t have comic relief, I’ll bet it got mixed reviews. Now, I’ll grant you, it’s true that Ingmar Bergman didn’t rely on humor, and his films are critically acclaimed; but I ask you, how many people do you know who rave about how entertaining Bergman’s movies are?
Expectation, misdirection, and empathy: three powerful tools in a horror writer’s – or any writer’s arsenal. The better acquainted you become with them, the more likely you are to have your readers turning pages and running for a change of pant. However, if you want to assure that every reader who opts for your genre is at least happy with the experience, make sure to leave them laughing in the end. That’s what my time with the ghouls taught me.
I’m Dave Core, the author of the Lupa Schwartz series of mystery novels. Book one in the series, Extreme Unction, is available in print and ebook formats and can be found on Amazon.com - http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=ntt_athr_dp_sr_1?_encoding=UTF8&field-author=J.%20David%20Core&search-alias=books&sort=relevancerank
My facebook author page is https://www.facebook.com/Lupaschwartzmysteries
My writing blog is http://lupamysteries.blogspot.com/
My next release, Confessions of the Cuckold will be available on September 2.
The Goucher Haunted House in Toronto, Ohio begins conducting tours at the end of September - http://thegoucherhotel.com/
Monday, September 16, 2013
Sunday, September 1, 2013
Ok. You’ve scoured your house for everything useful. You’ve shoved everything in your backpack as you can fit. You’ve unpacked it in order to get those last few things in. You’ve finally decided you can do without those Vienna Sausages and the last can of Coke from the fridge. You have your 50 pound pack on your back. You have a knife in your belt and a pistol on your hip. You have a shovel that is doubling as a walking stick. You are ready to beet feet, bounce, un-ass your current residence.
But, how? Do you just walk out the front door and start walking? What other modes of transportation do you have? What are the pros and cons of each?
Let’s look at our most often used mode of transportation: The car. Oh how nice it would be to just cruise out of the hot zone in my nice SUV; passing the shambling, slow moving zombies in the air conditioned comfort.
1. Capacity: Cars have a large cargo capacity. You can offload that heavy rucksack for a few hours.
2. Speed: Cars have a huge speed advantage over other modes of transportation. Not even sure if the “Rage” zombies can keep up with even the most underpowered, overloaded car.
3. Protection: Cars are generally covered in glass, metal, and plastic. You’re probably safe from the random zombie just reaching out and grabbing you.
4. Range: Range is a huge factor. You can cover a lot of ground with a car. You have a chance of getting ahead of the outbreak, or of exiting the area before the government quarantines the area.
1. Require roads: Most cars, light duty trucks, and SUV’s don’t really do well off road. They don’t have a high enough ground clearance to make it over even moderate obstacles.
2. Fuel: Cars are hungry little creatures. The better they are at hauling our stuff, and protecting us from zombies, the hungrier they’ll be.
3. Target: That’s right. You’ll be a target. Imagine if you’re walking out of the hot zone and some jackass drives past you in a nice comfy Caddy. Think you might wanna try to take it from him. Damn right. Every time you slow down, someone is going to try to take your car. Some might not even wait for you to slow down. Desperate people will do desperate things. You might get shot at by everyone you pass.
4. Noise: Cars make noise. Noise travels. Zombies, bad guys, even desperate people are going to know you’re in the area. You may not like the attention you get.
So, does this mean you abandon your car and just start hoofing it? I’d say for 80% of us, the answer is no. Get as far away from the known danger area (where you are now) as you can. Just keep in mind that at some point you may have to start walking, and/or find another mode of transportation.
I’ll just touch on motorcycles. They have limited range, carrying capacity, and offer no physical protection. They are generally more tolerant of rough terrain, especially if the bike is made for off road use. Be warned. Off road bikes are generally not muffled, and are that much louder. You may still be the target of robbery, so, keep that in mind.
Most homes in America, and around the world for that matter, have a bicycle or two in them. They are really a pretty good option.
1. Fuel: You’re the power source. You don’t have to find a working gas station, or carry fuel.
2. Flexibility: You don’t have to ride a bike. If you get tired of pedaling, you can always dismount and walk with your bike. The bike can still carry your gear the entire time.
3. Mobility: A bike can go just about anywhere. Rivers and mountains being a few notable exceptions. When everyone else is sitting in the traffic jam waiting for someone to help them, you can veer over to the shoulder or the grass, and keep right on going.
4. Easy to maintain: Unlike a car, most 12 year olds know the basics of bike maintenance: keep the chain greased and on the sprockets and air in the tires. What happens to the car when it’s sitting stuck in traffic for an hour with no air blowing over the radiator? You can even ride a bike with no air in the tires in an emergency.
1. Limited range: Unless you are an avid biker, or in very good shape, you’re realistically only going to be able to make 70 or 100 road miles per day. This will of course decrease if you have to go off road. While this number is not bad, remember it is about what a car can cover in about 1-2 hours if traffic is light.
2. Protection: A bike has little protection from the elements or zombies. One lucky grab and you’re on your back holding your busted melon with a zombie eating you. That reminds me: Safety First. Wear a helmet. It would suck to escape the zombie hoard and then die from a brain bleed when you fall off your bike.
3. Limited carrying capacity: In reality, you won’t be able to carry much more on your bike than you can on your back. Oh, if you turn it into a pack mule like the Vietnamese did during the Vietnam War, and then you can carry a butt-load. You just won’t be able to ride it in an emergency.
Some folks have access to horses. If you have access and know how to ride, then this is an excellent form of transportation. They require grass for fuel, they have a large carrying capacity, and can travel long distances. Be warned, most horses are a bit skittish around things like snakes. I’m betting that even the best horse out there may buck when confronted with a zombie. That would suck to get thrown from your ride as a couple of zombies come at you.
Airplanes are a good form of transportation. They can cover extremely long distances in a very short time. They can carry large amounts of people and cargo. They do require fuel, a lot of fuel. An airplane has one disadvantage that no other form of transportation has. Once you’re in the air, you have to land. Run out of gas, or can’t find a place to land, and you get to become one with the earth at a high rate of speed. When I refer to airplane, I mean the little air strip planes. You couldn’t pay me to try to jump on a Delta flight out of the hot zone. Airports are going to get overrun quickly. And, I don’t want to be on American flight XYZ when someone decides to turn from living to dead at 30,000 feet.
This is my personal favorite form of transportation. Boats have it all. They can be powered by you or a motor. He’ll, you can even get ones that are powered by the wind. You don’t have to power them at all. You can just let them float down river.
They can carry a bunch of stuff. Even a little boat can carry more than you can carry on your back. They can even carry a you and your friends to safety. Just don’t tip them over, and wear your life vests. Don’t want to drown as you’re on the verge of rescue.
They are relatively safe. Put a few hundred yards of flowing water between you and your hoard, and you can almost rest easily. Almost. I read a friend’s book, Until the End by Tracy Ward, this summer. I was reminded that rivers have bridges, and bridges can hold zombies. Some of which may try very hard to fall into your boat. So, watch those bridges.
Food. Boats are generally used on water. Water usually has fish swimming in it. Catch enough of those little guys, and you got a meal. Just remember, zombies may be in the water. If you snag on something it may be a zombie. Be careful.
Now, all of these recomendatio0ns depend on where you are. If you live in the desert of the Southwest U.S., then you probably don’t want to try to get to a boat. So, keep in mind that what works for me may not work for you.
My plan is to get as far as I can with the car. The family bikes are strapped to the luggage rack. When I get to something the car won’t get past, I’m going to the bikes. I’m making for a river and looking for a boat. From there, I have either the Red or Mississippi River to take me out. I can go west, north, or south.
Don’t forget to check out APEX. My characters don’t always follow my advice. But, that’s the nature of my characters. They don’t always listen.