In the Tall Grass [Netflix, 2019]

Unless you happen to be stumbling across this blog for the first time (and if you are, welcome!), you know how I revere Stephen King. I’ve written before about how much of his earlier work shaped me into the rather odd duck I am today. To this day I regret not going to the reading he did here in Wichita a few years ago. He is one of the only people I can think of that would leave me utterly starstruck.

Still, he’s not perfect. Any prolific artist is bound to have some misfires—he’s cranked out some notoriously bad books in his career. There’s also been a longstanding problem with filmmakers adapting his work in a way that works. Many directors can’t seem to figure out how to make a King story translate from the page to the screen (Frank Darabont and Mike Flanagan being the notable exceptions). So, with that said, and as someone who hasn’t read the Stephen King/Joe Hill co-written novella upon which it’s based, it’s hard to know why Netflix’s new film adaptation of In the Tall Grass doesn’t work—whether it’s merely another poor adaptation of the master’s work or it was based on subpar source material and therefore doomed from the start. One thing is for sure, though: In the Tall Grass doesn’t work.

The premise sounds silly on its face: a horror story about some sort of malevolent grass that traps people with no hope for escape. Throw in some bizarre time travel aspects and an all-knowing, all-seeing rock, and it all sounds absolutely ludicrous. But here’s the funny part—for the first thirty minutes or so, it’s actually pretty compelling.

I was completely on board as siblings Cal and Becky stopped on their trek to San Diego so the expecting Becky could puke on the side of the road. Soon after, they hear a boy in the roadside field of tall grass calling for help. He tells them he’s lost and asks if they can help him. The pair decide to help, and enter the grass to their (obvious to us) peril. Things quickly grow confusing as the pair get separated and can’t seem to find each other no matter what they do. The confusion grows as the boy’s mother is heard yelling at him to stop asking for help, and dead animals are found among the grass. Becky ends up encountering the boy’s father, then things begin to go a little sideways.

I won’t spoil anything in case anyone wants to actually give the movie a shot, but In the Tall Grass goes from sixty to zero alarmingly fast. In the span of maybe 20 minutes, I went from fully engaged to completely uninterested. I started checking my phone, leaving the room without pausing it, and then I did something I almost never do: with about 25 minutes left in the movie, I started fast-forwarding to just get the godforsaken movie over with. I was invested enough to want to know how it ended, but not invested enough to actually watch it to find out.

The highlight of the movie is Patrick Wilson’s (The Conjuring) performance as Ross, the father who may or may not be who he seems. He gives it his all, but he can’t save this dud. If you’ve read the book and are genuinely curious I can understand wanting to check it out, but there are far better scary movies out there to be checking out this October, so my advice is to skip it and don’t waste your precious time.

Get to the point already!

Taking a break from rewrites today for two reasons: 1) the synapses just aren’t all firing—chalk it up to exhaustion following a busy work week (I’m writing this on my Saturday, which is Sunday for you M-F’ers, even though you’ll be reading it on your Monday, which is my Sunday, got it?), and 2) I don’t want to neglect the blog, so when I got an idea for a post I decided to hurry and write it up.

I haven’t written anything new for quite a while. I’m still trying to get the same batch of 4 short stories published (the oldest of which has been bouncing around for almost a year now), considering final tweaks on novel #1 before finally calling it officially done (I recently had a light bulb moment regarding the final act and may have to rewrite some of the book’s climax), and rewriting novel #2 (#1=Snakebit and #2=Liberating Oz, for those of you keeping score at home). What this means is that I’ve been in an editing frame of mind for quite a while, and will be for at least a couple more months.

On top of that, I just finished Stephen King’s latest novel, Revival, and had a brief discussion on Facebook with my friend and fellow writer (as well as my go-to movie and music expert) Jeff, in which we agreed that Mr. King has an issue with being excessively wordy and needs to keep someone around to tell him when it’s time to cut the crap and get to the point.

How cool is that? Also, if anyone cares, this is an alternate cover, of which there were several, all of them cooler than the official US cover, in my opinion.

How cool is this? This is an animated GIF of an alternate cover, of which there were several, all of them cooler than the official US cover, in my opinion.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of Revival, but it’s by no means a bad book. The first third or so had me riveted as I waited patiently to see how all the backstory would pay off. And the ending was quite good, if you like things dark and twisted like I do. Especially coming from King, it was a satisfying (which in this case means unsettling) ending, and yet I was still a little frustrated when I finished it. Because the rest of it—from about 1/3 of the way through until the last 30 pages or so? Ugh. It was still interesting, at least to me as a musician, but it started to drag on, and on, AND ON, until I started thinking, ‘Good God, when is something going to finally happen?’

A brief word about my job (it ties in, trust me): I’ve completed training and am now a full-fledged Fire and EMS dispatcher, so when calls come in for medical and/or fire-related emergencies, I’m one of the people going out on the radio and telling the units where to go and what’s going on there. It can be stressful (and is, fairly regularly), but it’s actually also a boatload of fun, if you can believe that. But the thing is, among all that chaos I still have to take 911 calls as well and juggle all of it simultaneously. What this has meant is that when I’m on the phone with a caller I have a newfound sense of urgency—I need to get the pertinent information and get off the phone as quick as I can so I’m available on the radio if units need to tell me or ask me something. I feel like a lot of writers could benefit from having a similar sense of urgency in telling their stories.

Elmore Leonard had the advice that aspiring writers have probably read a thousand times, “Try and leave out the parts that readers skip.” I wish more writers would take that advice. Now, I’m not opposed to taking some time to give some backstory, or maybe a lot of attention to detail in certain scenes if it’s called for, but for the most part I like stories that cut to the chase and keep the ball rolling, like that big boulder at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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Liberating Oz is written in the first person, and it’s the first extended piece (meaning longer than a short story) I’ve written from that POV. The fist third-to-half of the book is setting up events that unfold in the second half, and for some reason it feels at times like I’m rambling and not staying on task when telling the story. Deep down, I don’t really think I am (I won’t know for sure until I sit down with my reading cap on versus my writing/editing cap), after all the thing’s barely novel-length as it is, but still, I wonder. In my conversation with Jeff about Revival, I said to him, “It would’ve made a killer novella.” I don’t want the same thing said about my own work. I’d rather write a killer novella than a too-long novel that bores people.

Writers out there: do you ever have any issues with feeling like you’re taking too long to get to where you’re going, be it first or third person? How do you keep yourself on the straight and narrow?

Readers out there: what books can you think of that lost you along the way because they just took too long to get to the point? Or, conversely, what books got right to it like a gunshot and had you riveted from start to finish?

Until next time, I’m off to do a little reading, once I decide which of the remaining books I got for Christmas is next. What a nice problem to have.

The BOJ Quarterly Book Report: Spring Edition

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to read more. I set a goal for myself of at least 12 books this year; I thought that was attainable without stretching myself too thin. So far I’m right on pace with my book-a-month goal—in fact, I seem to be picking up a little steam as time goes on, maybe building my reading muscle back up(?), so I might even exceed it. Time will tell.

I toyed with the notion of writing reviews for each book on GoodReads as I read them, but so far I’ve yet to pull the trigger on that (and BTW, if any of you are on GoodReads feel free to look me up and send a friend request—I don’t do much except rate books as I finish them, but lord knows you can’t have too many friends on social media, right?). Then I thought about a recap of all the books I’ve read at the end of the year, but then I thought I wouldn’t even want to write anything that long, why would anyone want to read it? So I came up with a new plan, to do a few at a time; quarterly seemed to make the most sense, at least for the time being. I’m not sure how long I’ll stick with this format, but for now I’m just going to go with it. The star ratings are what I gave them in GoodReads.

 

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NOS4A2 by Joe Hill (2013)

I’d been wanting to read some of Hill’s work for a while, and when Amazon had a sale on the e-book I couldn’t resist.

Victoria “Vic” McQueen is a fairly normal little girl. Until, that is, she jumps on her trusty bicycle. With it, she has the ability to ride onto a rickety old bridge (that was actually demolished years earlier) and use it to transport her to different places, helping her “find” things—and people—that are lost.

Someone who shares a similar gift is Charlie Manx, a vampiric old man who gets powers from children. He abducts kids and takes them to “Christmasland,” a surreal land from which there is no escape for the now soulless children. Vic encounters Manx as a child and manages to escape his clutches, upon which he is locked away until he seemingly dies. But with a little help Manx is let loose upon the world with revenge on his mind, and his eyes set on Vic’s son.

Thoughts as a reader: A great, original idea that’s a little anti-climactic. Despite it’s length, there are leaps in time from Vic’s childhood to adulthood where a little more detail might have been nice. Still, a really good book.

Thoughts as a writer: I really liked Manx; he reminded me almost of a modern-day Freddy Krueger, in that he was terrifying but had a twisted sense of humor. He also had a very distinct way of speaking—I found it a little distracting at first, but it grew on me by the end. Most of the characters were well fleshed out, except for Vic’s son Wayne.

4 stars

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Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig (2012)

If you’re a writer, you most likely already know of Chuck Wendig. If you’re not, you’ll probably know about him soon enough. Author of god knows how many books and the Picasso of profanity, Wendig’s website, terribleminds.com, is a wealth of knowledge no writer should do without. It was high time I read something other than his blog, and Blackbirds, being the first in a series, seemed the obvious choice.

Miriam Black has the unique ability to be able to see how and when you’re going to die. All she needs is the briefest of contact—a handshake, the brush of an elbow in passing, anything—and she can see how and when you’ll meet your demise. She uses said gift to get by in a less than scrupulous manner, when she meets a man who knows her secret and blackmails her into going deeper, trying to get more and more, and a trucker who, through one of her visions, she can see will die in thirty days, calling her name. She is drawn into a world of criminal heathens who don’t care if she lives or dies, and must rely on her wit to make it out alive and try to save her new trucker friend.

Thoughts as a reader: A short, fast-paced, and original story. It was a lot of fun to read and I have the sequel ready to go for the near future.

Thoughts as a writer: Wendig isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel here, but he clearly knows of which he speaks on his website. His writing crackles with energy and the story is tight. There were some cut-away chapters of Miriam being interviewed that seemed almost like filler to get the story to novel length, but other than that, no complaints.

3 stars

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Bag of Bones by Stephen King (1999)

I didn’t realize until after I finished this book just how well-liked it is. With someone who puts out as many books as King does, he has quite a variety of fans: there are the ones who still think of him as a horror author and don’t like anything else; those who don’t like the horror but enjoy the more literary works; and the sci-fi/fantasy crowd that love his Dark Tower books. As I read reviews on GoodReads, it seemed that this is considered one of his best “literary” books. And while not horror, it is spooky and does have some truly horrific goings on.

Mike Noonan is a successful writer who lives in Maine (hmm…sounds familiar) when his wife dies suddenly of a brain aneurism. It takes Mike a long time to start picking up the pieces and try to move on with his life—he does so by deciding to spend the summer at the lake house he and his wife had as a vacation home in a small town. Once there, a chance encounter introduces Mike to Mattie Devore, a young widower, and her daughter Kyra. Mattie is fighting for custody of Kyra against her father-in-law, a mega-rich old man who rules the town and can buy pretty much anyone/anything he wants, and is used to getting his way.

Thoughts as a reader: I thought it was really slow off the mark, taking a good 60-70 pages before anything happened (besides the death of Mike’s wife, which happens right off the bat). Once Mike gets to the lake house it does pick up and get more interesting, and there are some neat developments. It’s a good book, and I can see why some people (who don’t care for his horror novels) might hail it as one of his best. I wouldn’t quite go that far, as I’m not one of his “horror only” fans, but I do like a bit more in the scare department. Some of the scares here, especially toward the end, seemed a little hokey to me.

Thoughts as a writer: Is this book ever the lesson of Chekov’s Gun—the idea that something introduced in a story must come into play later on. If memory serves correctly, there is literally nothing in the story that doesn’t mean something and help resolve things toward the conclusion. I really enjoyed/appreciated that aspect of the book.

And while those first 60 pages or so seemed slow story-wise, as a writer they were very interesting, as he detailed what life was like as a famous author—the pressures put on him by his agent and publisher; the marketing strategy as to when they would release his books; how that can all get derailed by another famous author releasing a book out of their normal schedule (damn you, Mary Higgins Clark!); and, perhaps most interestingly, how when he was on a hot streak he wrote book after book and stashed them away, so that when he was crippled by writer’s block after the death of his wife he was still able to produce books on schedule for four more years. I assume most of that is pretty much true, which just goes to show once you “make it” you still have plenty of pressure on you to perform.

3 stars

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Freaky Deaky by Elmore Leonard (1988)

One of the coolest things about having a pretty good sized library of books is that you can go through them and find books you either forgot you had or don’t even remember acquiring. The latter was what happened with Bag of Bones—I still have no idea where that book came from—and the former is what happened here. A few years ago my wife bought me about 8 or 10 Leonard paperbacks (always the good wife, love you honey!) and I thought I’d read them all until I moved some books around and saw there were two or three I’d forgotten about. Despite the horrendous-looking cover seen above, I picked this one.

The story starts with a bang, literally, as we meet Detective Chris Mankowski, who as the story begins is leaving the Firearms and Explosives division  for a job in Sex Crimes. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Robin, a former radical/activist in the sixties, and Skip, her old flame and partner in crime who took his talent for making things go boom and got a job in Hollywood as a stuntman and explosives coordinator. Robin convinces Skip that the time they spent in jail in the sixties was thanks to two brothers: Mark and Woody Ricks, who since the hippy days have inherited a boatload of money and are now filthy rich. Robin has a plan to get some payback (and payment) from the Ricks brothers and needs Skip’s help to see it through. As with most Elmore Leonard stories, things don’t go according to plan.

Thoughts as a reader: Classic Elmore Leonard. Aside from Greta Wyatt, the woman Chris meets when she comes into the Sex Crimes unit to file a report on Woody, every major character has an angle and is looking to score. Robin and Skip’s plan changes almost right away before starting to unravel completely, but it never feels contrived or forced. For these (mostly dimwitted) characters, everything that happens seems perfectly plausible. King will always be my favorite writer, but Mr. Leonard’s books give me a certain satisfaction when I finish them that not all of King’s books do.

Thoughts as a writer: Good god, where to start? The dialogue. The characters talk in a natural way, which I’ve realized is hard to pull off. It’s really difficult to have a character talk like a normal human being without it sounding forced or corny. He really is the master. Also, his advice to writers about leaving out the parts that readers would skip? This is a good example of that. It’s a pretty short book, but the story is tight—there’s no need for any more. One final note, I really have to give the man credit—I don’t know how many other writers could pull off having a character named Juicy Mouth.

4 stars

As you can probably tell, I’ve been staying well within my comfort zone as far as author and subject matter go. I’d like to expand my horizons, so to speak, but I’m not really sure which way to turn. So, as corny as this sounds, have you read any good books lately?

Stephen King’s A Bit of a Tweeker

I was doing some what I heard once called AFTK (away-from-the-keyboard) writing the other day—some of you may just call it ‘spacing out’—and as I thought about a particular story idea, I realized I needed a certain type of minor supporting character. As luck would have it, I had already created such a character for a different story that would fill the role nicely; the two stories were set in the same town, so it was perfectly plausible. I thought that was neat, having a little thread connecting two stories. Then I started thinking, and realized that I’ve either already done that or had planned on doing it in almost all my longer stories.

I know they were conscious decisions on some level, but it was never anything I really put a lot of thought into. It’s not just a little easter egg to myself (or my eventual readers, someday), there’s some actual benefit to it. Once you create a character you like (and manage not to kill them off), it makes it a little easier to put them into a story because you already know them. Their backstory, their attitude, the way they talk. It provides a depth that new characters may not possess until they’ve been developed a lot further.

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I’ve been thinking about Elmore Leonard a lot lately. I just started reading his book Freaky Deaky, and for the story I’m working on right now I’m trying to shoot for a Leonardian (did I just make up a word?) vibe and wanted some inspiration. Mister Leonard has also happens to have quite a few intertwining characters throughout his world of cops, crooks and cretins. It adds an interesting layer of depth to his stories if you happen to know the characters from other books.

Then there’s Stephen King.

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I’d heard once that a lot of King’s characters wove their way through his stories, so I decided to check it out for myself. It’s enough to make your head spin. I honestly don’t know if there’s a single novel of his that doesn’t cross over with another in some way. Not even just characters themselves but relatives of characters. King has created entire family trees in his universe, even going so far as writing himself into his heralded Dark Tower series (a fact I didn’t know until I started doing the research for this post—I really have to read that series).

If you have the time are awake and alert enough to try and follow it, click here to see how his characters, locations, and more intertwine in this insanely detailed flow chart.

Do any of you find yourselves going back to characters like they’re old friends you’re going to visit for a spell? Are there books or authors that bring in characters from other works that especially tickles your fancy?

My Writing Resolutions for 2014

2014

Lose weight. Quit smoking. Exercise more. Stop drinking. It’s that time again, when people use the new year as a chance to wipe the slate clean and hit the reset button. Stop their bad habits and start over fresh January 1st with a new beginning. They share many of the same resolutions; some manage to keep theirs for good, while others may last a few months. Some will only last a week or two before saying ‘screw it’ and falling back to their old ways.

As the year comes to a close I’ve been reflecting on my writing—what I’ve accomplished, what I still want to accomplish, and how I can go about getting there. Hence, my writing resolutions for the coming year. I’m curious if any of you other writers out there share some of these same resolutions the way ‘normal’ people share theirs.

I will devote time to writing every day.

As writers, the phrase “Write every day” is engrained in us like the literary Pledge of Allegiance. Lately, though, I think that piece of advice is part baloney. I’m not necessarily saying someone should actively choose not to write, but I don’t believe forcing yourself to put words on paper (or on a screen) is always the most beneficial thing you can do.

Instead, what I’ve begun doing is setting aside time to write every day. If I use that time to write, that’s awesome. But sometimes, there’s just nothing in the tank. Chalk it up to a long day at work, too little sleep, or simply a bad mood/depression, sometimes writers don’t want to write. That’s different than you’re garden variety procrastination; I’m talking about just plain not having the desire to write anything. I think that as long as it isn’t happening regularly, it’s okay to not write once in a while.

What I do believe in is putting the time aside to write. If you don’t feel like writing one day, don’t, but do something at least related to writing. Maybe read a book. Read some blogs, or work on your own blog. Write somebody an email. Even if you don’t write a single word, it’s still time devoted to writing and thinking about writing. Sometimes that can be just as productive (if not more) than forcing yourself to crap out a couple hundred words of something you don’t like.*

*this is merely one random guy’s opinion, feel free to disagree. Many do.

I will learn to use Scrivener and Evernote to their full potential.

As a novice writer and blogger (which, arguably, I still am), last year I read a lot of articles and blog posts about what tools writers use to capture their thoughts and ideas, and what they use to actually get them written down. I dutifully got Scrivener and, more recently, Evernote, and now I just need to learn how to make the most of them.

I’ve jotted down a few notes on my phone when I was out and about on Evernote, but I still don’t really know what else there is to do with it. Same goes for Scrivener: I’ve used it and am using it currently, but only in its most basic capacity. I need to take the time to watch the tutorials and fumble around in my clumsy old man fashion until I can really see what that program can do. At this point it seems like it will be something I mainly use in the editing stage as I do a lot of my principal writing away from home. I initially used Google Drive to write while away, but due to some inexplicable problems with it at work I’ve begun using Zoho. It gets the job done, but I do like Drive better.

I will read more.

I read seven books this year; not exactly what you’d call a staggering amount. But now, as the rough drafts pile up and editing becomes a bigger and bigger part of my day, the time to read has seemed to shrink to a sliver. I started a book two or three weeks ago and I’m still just 30 pages in. There is so much I want to read—old books I either haven’t read or want to re-read, fellow bloggers’ books, new authors making their debut—and the list goes on.

What I need to do is crack open a book every time I find myself wanting to play a new game, or if a TV show is on that I’m not totally invested in. Because I know what happens: once I get far enough into a book, I’m in for the long haul. Once I’m invested in the story I become determined to finish the thing so I can see how it all turns out.  My goal is at least 12 books in 2014—still not setting the world on fire, but a small improvement from this year.

I will study the craft.

This year I read Stephen King’s wonderful On Writing (which I didn’t count as one of the seven), as well as the essays by Chuck PalahniukCraig Clevenger and everyone else at Lit Reactor. Together, those helped me make a giant leap in the quality of my writing. There’s nothing quite like reading something that details poor writing, only to find examples of said poor writing throughout your work.

But that’s not enough.

I still haven’t picked up what is considered by many to be the gold standard, the holy grail of writers everywhere, Strunk and White‘s The Elements of Style, and I haven’t gone back through every aspiring writer’s hero Chuck Wendig’s website for his tips on writing. Reading what I did this past year helped, but I’m not done learning. A writer is never done learning, we all know that. I’m going to study up and make my writing goddamn bulletproof.

I will be published.

God, it sounds so simple, doesn’t it? If only it were. I had seven short stories that I submitted to publishers this year, and as of this writing have amassed 11 rejections. That doesn’t shake me all that bad, honestly. Rejection is part of the game. No, what bothers me is my lack of diligence.

What happens is I’ll submit a story, receive the rejection, then do nothing for awhile. I don’t just automatically move on to the next publisher and submit again, like I should. Some stories have only been submitted once, while one story has been submitted and rejected four times. This year I’m going to be more businesslike in handling my submissions, and by god I’m going to be published.

That sounds so dramatic. What happens if I’m sitting here in late December of 2014 and still haven’t been published? Honestly, I don’t think that’s very likely but if that were to happen I’d have no one but myself to blame for not being persistent and sending out submissions regularly. A couple of the early stories I wrote may lack some of the polish of more recent ones, but I truly believe my work now is good enough to be printed somewhere, and somewhere out there is a publisher who thinks so, too.

So, there you have it. My writing resolutions for 2014. Hopefully I keep them all, or at least make a valiant effort. I look forward to reading all your blogs in the coming year, so keep ’em coming. Now, tell me, do you have any resolutions for your writing? Any of yours on my list above?

Thanks to everyone who follows and reads the blog. This has turned out to be more fun and fulfilling than I ever could have imagined. Putting out a new blog post is always the highlight of my week. Here’s wishing you all a healthy, happy, and prosperous new year.

Serial Killers and The Nature of Fear

In the winter of 1986, my family was in a bit of a transitional period. We were in the middle of a move from Riverside, California (just east of L.A.) to the desert about a half hour north. We had managed to sell our old house before our new house was finished being built, so for a few months we stayed with my Grandmother, who also lived in Riverside. There were a lot of things going through my twelve year old mind that winter: having to move away from my friends, trying to make new friends at a new school – the usual concerns any kid would have when they move. There was one thing in particular, though, that crept into my head every night during those months at my Grandma’s house, and kept me absolutely petrified.

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Richard Ramirez, aka ‘The Night Stalker.’ Convicted of murdering 13 people.

Richard Ramirez was a brutal serial killer who terrorized the residents of the greater Los Angeles area for months in 1985. The majority of his crimes were break-ins or “home invasion” style crimes. In many cases, he killed his victims in their bedrooms, some while they were still asleep.

Since my parents and I were in an already occupied house, sleeping arrangements were a little different, especially for me. My parents got the spare bedroom, while I got to “camp out” in the formal living room. For the sake of practicality, my little air mattress was placed on the far side of the room – under the large picture window.

By that winter at my grandmother’s, Richard Ramirez had already been captured. That was of little consolation, though, as I lay nightly under the large picture window in the living room of a house that had already been burglarized once. Ramirez terrified me. Would tonight be the night he escaped custody and broke into my Grandma’s house? It may sound silly now, but to a scared twelve year old that was perfectly plausible.

By this time I had already begun a steady diet of horror books and film, and they were scary in their own right, but this was different. This was tangible – a real, deep down fear of something quite real that could (theoretically) actually happen. This wasn’t a burnt-faced boogeyman who haunted people’s dreams like Freddy Krueger, or a hockey mask-wearing slasher with a machete who killed campers like Jason Voorhees. This was a real person, who really did kill people with a machete, in real life. It was fear on a whole new level.

I still love horror stories and always will – the monsters, the zombies, the slashers, etc. But nothing ever seemed quite as scary after that winter sleeping under the window, wondering if I would be the Night Stalker’s next victim.

I bring all this up for a couple of reasons. Since that winter, I’ve always had an admittedly morbid fascination with serial killers. What could possibly be wrong with their brains to make them do the horrible things they do? Some acted out of pure impulse, while others were extremely careful and calculating. When I think of what could really scare someone, put the fear of god in them, that’s what I think of. Not monsters or demons or vampires, but another living, breathing human being who is perfectly capable of taking a life, and you never know who will be next. It could be anyone. It could be you.

That’s scary.

I just finished reading a relatively old book (1989), The Girl Next Door, by Jack Ketchum. The book tells the story of a teenage girl in 1950’s rural America who is abused, tortured, and eventually killed by the relatives she is sent to live with following the death of her parents. It’s a work of fiction, but the horrifying part is that it’s loosely based on a true story. Ketchum makes up the methods of torture and adds fictional characters for the sake of adding context and drama to the story, but it really happened. That’s what makes it truly scary.

One of the most unsettling and disturbing movies that doesn’t always get talked about is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). It’s loosely based on real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. The unflinching depiction of violence, especially one scene in particular of a family being murdered and Henry and his partner Otis watching the videotaped recording of the killings over and over on their couch later, is downright chilling. That scares me more than any made up monster.

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It relates a bit to what Stephen King has said in some of his many interviews regarding the pressure he feels with his latest novel, Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining. To paraphrase, he said that he understands that many of his fans were kids when they read The Shining, and it’s a lot easier to scare a kid than an adult. As I’m finishing up my latest rough draft, I find myself grappling with the same thing – is it going to scare people?

It’s a thriller/mystery/detective story about serial killers with a bit of a ‘meta’ edge to it. There is talk of serial killers past in the book, and my killers want nothing more than to instill fear in everyone in the city as they increase their body count. I think it’s a pretty damn scary concept; now I just have to revise and edit to try and make sure it scares people as bad as I was, lying under that window in January of 1986.

I want you to tell me what scares you. In a great bit of irony, as I let this story I’m finishing sit and “breathe” a bit, so to speak, I have another project to go back to – one that involves monsters and the supernatural. So I want to hear the scariest stories you know, real life or otherwise. Be they books, movies, creepy pasta (do any of you read that stuff?), urban legends, ghost stories you heard around the campfire…what makes you afraid to turn out the lights?

‘Unpacking the Suitcase’ and The Pain of Knowing What You Don’t Know

I want to start by wishing best of luck to all the writers out there crazy/brave enough to embark on the insanity that is NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, November is designated as National Novel Writing Month, and if you sign up for the challenge the goal is to write a complete draft of a novel (at least 50,000 words) by the end of the month.

I don’t think I have the organizational skills to have a story so well thought out that I can crank out the words that fast; maybe next year (?). I’m with you all in spirit, though – I’m 26,000 words into my current rough draft, and the way I work I may need all month to finish that. So read my blog, then get back to churning out the 1700 words a day you need to hit that goal and win NaNo!

I’ve been re-reading some of the craft essays on Lit Reactor (which, again, I can’t recommend highly enough) for help and inspiration as I go, and there’s a phrase Chuck Palahniuk uses throughout his essays: he refers to ‘unpacking the suitcase,’ a term he came up with for identifying what writers need to do sometimes to slow down and be more descriptive. I have a really hard time doing that.

I sent out a tweet recently (follow me on twitter here!) saying that as I read over what I’d written I heard the voice of an annoying little kid in my head. Do you know the kind of kid I mean? The one who doesn’t know how to regulate the volume of their voice when they talk, and love telling lengthy stories as though it’s the world’s longest run-on sentence? Since my writing (at least in early drafts) tends to lack some of the details that makes a reader slow down and take in what they’re reading, it felt like I was rushing through it as I read it. When I go back on future drafts I need to slow down and ‘unpack the suitcase’ so the scene is a little easier to visualize. It’s good to leave a reader room for imagination, but you don’t want to leave it all up to them. Throw them a freakin’ bone, ya know?

A couple months ago I read The Long Walk by Stephen King (from way back in his Richard Bachman days). It’s one of his most well-liked by a lot of the die hard King fans out there, and if you’ve never read it I highly recommend it. It’s not flat out horror, but of course it’s very bleak and dark. As I read, I came upon a paragraph that stuck out to me so vividly that I went back and looked it up now months later just so I could quote it in this post. The book is set in New England during an unseasonably warm early May:

Birds sang in the high-crowned trees, the furtive breeze now and then masked the heat for a moment or two, sounding like a lost soul as it soughed through the trees. A brown squirrel froze on a high branch, tail bushed out, black eyes brutally attentive, a nut caught between his ratlike front paws. He chittered at them, then scurried away higher up and disappeared. A plane droned far away, like a giant fly.

When I came across those four sentences I stopped. I don’t think I’ve written that much detail in a single paragraph, well, ever. I’d like to think as I keep writing I keep getting better at ‘unpacking the suitcase,’ but I suppose time will tell. Which brings me to my next point.

I was thinking about how frustrating it is, knowing I’m not usually descriptive enough with what I’m writing, but at least I should take comfort in the fact that I know and don’t just keep doing it wrong without realizing it. That took me back to something I heard in high school, which I had to look up to refresh my memory, called the four stages of competence. They are (cribbed from Wikipedia):

  1. Unconscious incompetence
    The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognise their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.
  2. Conscious incompetence
    Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.
  3. Conscious competence
    The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.
  4. Unconscious competence
    The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

I suppose I’m in between 2 and 3. I know enough to recognize what I’m doing wrong, but for the most part I think I do know what I’m doing (if I do say so myself). I don’t know if many writers ever feel like they’re fully at number 4, aside from maybe King, Cormac McCarthy, people like that. I have a hard time believing I will ever reach number 4, but that’s okay – there are lots of 3’s out there who are doing just fine.

With that, I’m going to retreat back into my little writer’s dungeon, start mashing on the keyboard and see what appears on the screen. Once again, best of luck to the NaNoWriMo participants, may the word count gods be with you.